Historiann realizes that she’s been blogging a lot about lady parts recently–my apologies for those of you who don’t have lady parts, or who aren’t particularly interested in getting close to anyone else’s lady parts. Blame the wandering uterus, if you must, but if you’ve been following the ridiculous public conversation recently on Gardasil, the miracle anti-cancer vaccine that can benefit our students, younger sisters, daughters, granddaughters, goddaughters, and nieces, and all other people with lady parts, you’ll be interested to read our friend Pal MD’s brief review of the latest research at WhiteCoat Underground. Predictably, instead of rejoicing at the discovery of a cure for cancer, there are a lot of people who are worried that this vaccine is going to unleash the inner slut inside all of our girl children.
Smallpox inoculation in the eighteenth century provoked even more anxiety and fear than vaccination does today in some tiny but stubborn sub-cultures. In all fairness, inoculation (also known as variolation) was in fact a risky procedure, unlike modern vaccination, which involved infecting a healthy body with live virus to induce a mild course of the disease that would render the patient immune to future infection. People who were inoculated were infectious to others, and some died from the resulting illness. Many, many articles and books in the history of medicine that have addressed inoculation, but to my mind, the best of them are explorations of cultural history, and view disease and disease prevention as a window into past worlds. Elizabeth Fenn’s Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82 (2001) includes a nice overview of smallpox inoculation in colonial America, in addition to exploring the course of a disease and its effects on a continent.
Robert V. Wells’s essay, “A Tale of Two Cities: Epidemics and the Rituals of Death in Eighteenth-Century Boston and Philadelphia,” which appeared in a collection called Mortal Remains: Death in Early America (2003), edited by Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein, actually managed to elicit some sympathy in me for Cotton Mather, who although a horrible warmongering racist, was also a pioneering advocate for inoculation. Mather’s life was tragically deformed by a measles epidemic in 1713, which took the life of his second wife, a daughter, newborn twins, and a servant girl in his household when he was forty. Eight years later when smallpox came to Boston, he inoculated two of his sons and was rewarded for his brave public advocacy by a “fired granado” thrown into one of the bedrooms of his house, with a note that read, “Cotton Mather, you dog, damn you: I’ll inoculate you with this, with a pox to you.” (Fortunately the bomb fizzled, and Mather continued to promote inoculation.) And there is an almost brand-new book by David E. Shuttleton called Smallpox and the Literary Imagination, 1660-1820 (2007), which includes a chapter about inoculation and the specifically racialized and gendered fears surrounding the procedure, which was first promoted in England by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (herself a possesor of lady parts) after she witnessed its successes on a trip to Turkey (scandalously exotic!) in the early 1720s.
So, please follow in Lady Montagu’s (and–uuggh–Cotton Mather’s) footsteps. Fight the woo–get your kids the Gardasil vaccine.