Watching the current Inoculation Frolics, I was reminded of my recent reading of the superb biography, “Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman,” by Robert K., Massie.
In the spring of 1767, smallpox was rampaging through Russia. Catherine II, the German-born, French-speaking empress of Russia, saw a beautiful young countess die in mid-May. After that, Catherine took her young son and heir, Paul, into the countryside, avoiding all public gatherings.
Catherine was well aware that smallpox vaccination was being done in western Europe and the British colonies. (Thomas Jefferson, 23, the squire of Monticello, had himself inoculated in 1767.)
She sent for Dr. Thomas Dimsdale, 56, of Edinburgh, who arrived in August of 1768 and cautiously tried to inoculate other women before the empress, just to prove his process worked. (Massie notes that Dimsdale proclaimed Catherine, 39, “of all that I ever saw of her sex, the most engaging.”)
However, Catherine bravely insisted she go first and he took a sample of smallpox from a peasant boy, Alexander Markov, and inoculated the empress on Oct. 12, 1768. She developed the anticipated modest amount of pustules and illness but was back in public by Nov. 1.
The doctor inoculated 140 people in St. Petersburg and another 50 in Moscow, including Catherine’s son and grandson. Before Dimsdale returned to Scotland, she rewarded him with 10,000 pounds and a lifetime annuity. By 1800, over 2 million Russians had been inoculated.
The final word belongs to Voltaire, as it often does. The French philosopher was a regular correspondent with Catherine, although they never met. Massie writes:
“Catherine’s willingness to be inoculated attracted favorable notice in western Europe. Voltaire compared what she had allowed Dimsdale to do with the ridiculous views and practices of ‘our most argumentative charlatans in our medical schools.’”
Fortunately, in these enlightened times, we do not have any “argumentative charlatans.”
"The day after my 80th birthday, which overflowed with good wishes, surprises and Covid-safe celebrations, I awoke feeling fulfilled and thinking that whatever happens going forward, I’m OK with it. My life has been rewarding, my bucket list is empty, my family is thriving, and if everything ends tomorrow, so be it.
"Not that I expect to do anything to hasten my demise. I will continue to exercise regularly, eat healthfully and strive to minimize stress. But I’m also now taking stock of the many common hallmarks of aging and deciding what I need to reconsider."
--Jane E. Brody, my pal in the NYT newsroom, oh, a few years back, in the Personal Health column, Sept. 13, 2021.
"People have said to me, ‘You’re fully vaccinated. Why are you being so careful?’” said Dr. Robert M. Wachter, professor and chair of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “I’m still in the camp of I don’t want to get Covid. I don’t want to get a breakthrough infection.”
---Tara Parker-Pope, The New York Times, Aug. 16, 2021.