Lady Mary Montagu and the Discovery of the Smallpox Vaccine

Though Edward Jenner is credited with developing the first smallpox vaccine, inoculation had long been practiced in other parts of the world.


Smallpox had for many years been a scourge in the West, sweeping through the densely populated cities of Europe in periodic epidemics, killing as many as 35% of the people it infected and often leaving the survivors scarred for life. From the wealthiest noble to the humblest peasant, residents of London and Paris lived in abject fear of the next wave of infection. There was no known way to prevent the spread of the disease, and no known cure. But while the populace of the West cowered under smallpox’s shadow, they had no idea that the cultures of China, the Middle East, and Africa had known how to prevent the disease for centuries, and that their method would soon be introduced into England by one very brave and determined woman.

Lady Mary Montagu and the First Inoculations

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, a member of the British nobility and the wife of an ambassador, was living in Turkey while her husband was posted there. She had firsthand experience with the horrors of smallpox—she had contracted the disease in 1715, and though her prognosis had been grim, she had managed to survive. Before her illness, she had been widely lauded as one of the most beautiful women in Britain; afterward, her face was so misshapen and scarred that she always wore a veil in public. Though she no longer had to fear smallpox for herself, she lived in mortal terror of her two children contracting it. So when she heard the Turks had a method for preventing smallpox, she wanted to hear all about it.

The method had been practiced for centuries, though Westerners knew little to nothing of it. It is possible that inoculation against smallpox was known in India as early as 1000 BC, though the first definitive mention of the treatment was made in 1549, by Chinese author Wan Quan. The inoculation (or variolation, as it was called in the early days) worked on a similar principle to modern vaccines—small particles of diseased matter from an infected person, either in the form of pus or powdered scabs, was blown up the inoculee’s nose or inserted through a tiny cut in the skin. The patient would then develop a mild case of smallpox, after which he or she would be forever immune. There was a small chance the inoculation would be fatal, but it was an infinitesimal risk compared to the mortality rate of full-blown smallpox. Lady Mary, hearing of the method described by doctors Emmanuel Timoni and Jacob Pylarini, became determined to introduce the knowledge to England; to show her commitment to the cause, she vowed to have her own children inoculated.

The Smallpox Vaccine Comes to England

The British public were wary when Lady Mary returned home in 1721 and began making her campaign for variolation. Smallpox was horrible and often fatal; why give yourself a dose of it on purpose? But Lady Mary was relentless, and despite widespread condemnation of her and of Dr. Charles Maitland, who she persuaded to perform the inoculations, she gave the treatment to her children (aged 4 and 5), both of whom survived their ordeals with no lingering effects. Soon others were bringing their children to Lady Mary to have them variolated, and though one or two of the inoculated patients did die of smallpox, on the whole the experiment was a rousing success, so much so that the British Royal Family conceded to having their own children inoculated; still leery of the procedure’s safety, however, they insisted that the inoculations first be performed on six prisoners, who would earn a pardon if they survived. All did, and the royal children were variolated.

Cotton Mather and the American Inoculations

During this time, Lady Mary Montagu had also been corresponding with American minister Cotton Mather, who had noticed that his family’s African slaves seemed immune to smallpox. When Mather asked one of the slaves, Onesimus, about this, the man answered that a similar method of variolation as that practiced in Asia and the Middle East was also common in Africa. Mather convinced Dr. Zabdiel Boylston to inoculate Boylston’s son and two slaves, all of whom recovered, and was instrumental in sowing acceptance for the vaccine in the young United States.

Dr.Edward Jenner Vaccinating Young Boy

Edward Jenner and the Modern Vaccine

Early studies of the use of the cowpox virus to prevent smallpox had been done in 1727 and 1766, but it is British physician Edward Jenner who is generally credited with developing the first smallpox vaccine; the word vaccine was taken from the Latin “vaca,” for cow. The cowpox virus is similar to smallpox, and so conveys immunity to the more deadly disease, but is mainly prevalent in cows and not fatal to humans, making the vaccine much safer. Jenner experimented with his cowpox vaccine in 1796, and presented his findings to the Royal Society, after which he went on to experiment on 23 other people. The vaccine was hugely successful, bringing the death rate from smallpox down to essentially zero.

Over the years, Jenner’s work was published around the world, and widespread vaccination became the norm. In the late 1970s, the disease of smallpox was officially eradicated, though two samples of the deadly variola virus that causes it still remain—one at the CDC in Atlanta, Georgia, and one at the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology in Koltsovo, Russia. These are kept for research purposes in the event of a new outbreak, due either to natural causes or bioterrorism.


Carrell, Jennifer (2003). The Speckled Monster: A Historical Tale of Battling Smallpox. The Penguin Group. ISBN: 0452285070.

Counterfeiter William Chaloner, Busted by Sir Isaac Newton

William Chaloner made a fortune forging coins and paper money, but met his match in the greatest mind of the age. The original article I wrote can be found here.


Born sometime between 1650 and 1665 in the English county of Warwickshire, William Chaloner was apparently a natural criminal, and used his amoral wiles and gift for persuasion to (briefly) live the life of a gentleman. In and out of prison several times, adept at playing two sides against one another, the man was finally brought to heel in 1699 by the then Master of the Royal Mint, a man who had also proven himself one of the greatest scientific minds of all time, Sir Isaac Newton.

Anatomy of a Counterfeiter

The adolescent William Chaloner was evidently as incorrigible as his adult counterpart would prove to be, and when his parents found they could not control him, they sent him away to Birmingham to apprentice to a nail-maker. At the time, Birmingham was known for more than making nails, however; it was also a hotbed of coin forging, particularly of the small silver “groat,” worth about four pennies. Chaloner proved an apt pupil and was soon churning out “Birmingham groats” with the best of them.

Such small-time jobs didn’t quite suit Chaloner’s naked ambition, though, so around 1680 he struck out on foot for London. Once there he found it difficult to break into the insular criminal underworld, so he scraped by selling tin toy watches that evidently had sex toys attached. Around this time he might have married and fathered several children, though records are unclear. He also seems to have begun a slightly more lucrative scam of selling quack medicines to desperate tuberculosis, plague, and malaria sufferers. In addition, he started working with accomplices to rob people and then collect a reward from the unfortunate victims for the return of the stolen merchandise. It was robbery, in fact, that marked Chaloner’s first appearance in the arrest record in 1690.

Counterfeiting Coins

Forgery of currency was rampant in 17th-century England, largely because the hand-struck coins issued from the legitimate Mint were non-standard and prone to having metal clipped off their edges. 1662 saw the advent of machine-struck coins whose carefully measured weights and milled edges would ostensibly make them harder to fake. Of course forgers were not discouraged in the slightest, and by the mid-1690s it’s estimated that ten percent of the coins in circulation in England were forgeries. This problem, compounded by an arbitrage market in English silver, eventually led to the establishment of the Bank of England and the introduction of the paper bank note. Its immediate effect, however, was the hiring of scientist Isaac Newton to oversee the Royal Mint. Though he had no particular experience in finance, he took to his new post with his trademark intelligence and rigor.

William Chaloner’s Forging Fortunes

Chaloner, meanwhile, had perfected the fine art of counterfeiting coins from goldsmith Patrick Coffee (or Coffey). Soon he was forging French pistoles and English guineas, and using confederates to pass the fakes into circulation. His clever coins made for a lucrative business, and he was soon able to buy a grand country house in Knightsbridge and pass himself off as a wealthy gentleman. He went on to master the art of forging machine-struck coins using small and easily hidden stamps.

Ambitious and overconfident, Chaloner next tried to undermine to Royal Mint itself. He published pamphlets claiming corruption within the ranks, and gave suggestions for how the institution could overcome its problems. He even attempted to gain a position at the Mint, but was unsuccessful.

Chaloner the Prison Snitch

The counterfeiter’s activities began to draw unwanted attention, especially from Isaac Newton, who Chaloner had directly insulted by implicating him in Mint corruption. In 1696 Chaloner was arrested and sent to the notorious Newgate prison, but he walked free by ratting out several of his counterfeiting colleagues, and by raising doubts about conditions at the Mint.

While Chaloner was petitioning Parliament for a position inside the Mint, Newton happened to spot him, and generated another arrest. This time Chaloner was imprisoned at Newgate for almost two months before walking free once again.

Chaloner’s Other Scams

In addition to counterfeiting coins, Chaloner also had a hand in many other criminal enterprises. In one scam, he would convince reluctant printers to run off copies of Jacobite propaganda, then report the printers to authorities and collect the reward. He also began forging the new Bank of England paper notes, and printing fake “malt lottery” tickets that could be redeemed for cash. During all these shenanigans, he mostly stayed out of jail by turning King’s evidence against his confederates.

Chaloner’s Trial and Execution

Isaac Newton certainly hadn’t taken Chaloner’s accusations of corruption lightly, and by the end of the 17th century he had used his formidable intellect and vast number of contacts in the criminal underworld to build an airtight case against the arrogant counterfeiter. Chaloner finally stood trial in March of 1699, and though he vehemently argued his innocence, Newton had amassed several witnesses who attested to Chaloner’s long criminal history. The judge took little time in finding Chaloner guilty and sentencing him to death; counterfeiting money was considered treason, an offense against the Crown. Chaloner was sent back to Newgate to await execution, and in his desperation he faked madness, and then drafted many self-serving letters to Isaac Newton himself, none of which Newton seems to have answered. All Chaloner’s antics were for naught; he was hanged on March 16, 1699 at the gallows in Tyburn.


Levenson, Thomas (2009). Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist. Faber & Faber. ISBN: 0571229921.

Deciphering the Archimedes Palimpsest

A chance discovery and the application of high tech tools helped uncover several works of the great mathematician, feared lost for centuries. The original article I wrote can be found here.

Archimedes Palimpsest Exhibit

Danish scholar Johan Heiberg was probably not entirely sure what he would find when he traveled to Istanbul in 1906. All he knew was that seven years earlier, he had been browsing in a catalog detailing the manuscript collection of a Jerusalem monastery, and had come across the intriguing mention of a prayer book. This prayer book, known as a palimpsest because its original text had been scraped away and subsequently written over with the liturgical text, apparently held traces of some mathematical writings and formulas, still visible beneath the newer writing. Heiberg found the book in Istanbul, and examined its goatskin parchment under an ultraviolet lamp. Right away he realized what he was looking at: Hidden beneath the medieval-era prayers were the unmistakable work and words of the greatest mathematician of the ancient world, Archimedes.

The Early Days of the Archimedes Palimpsest

The original scrolls of Archimedes’s many written works—on the subjects of mathematics, physics, engineering, and other topics—have all been lost to history, but beginning even in his own lifetime (c. 287 BC – c. 212 BC), scholars in Greece made copies of his works. These copies eventually found their way to the Middle East, where even more copies were laboriously written out. The collection of works now known as the Archimedes Palimpsest was probably copied in Constantinople in the 5th century, and managed to survive that city’s sacking by Crusaders in 1204. But only a few decades later, in a monastery called Mar Saba near Bethlehem, Archimedes’s writings were meticulously scraped from the page by monks who often “recycled” paper this way. The leathery pages were then washed and written over, and bound into a prayer book.

The Modern History of the Palimpsest

The works remained hidden until Heiberg’s discovery in 1906, and after he published his findings the palimpsest mysteriously disappeared, and was suspected stolen. It did not turn up again until the early 1920s, in the collection of a French businessman named Marie Louis Siriex. The book passed to his daughter in 1946 and it was evidently she who made the rather puzzling decision to order the forging of four Byzantine-style paintings of the Evangelists over the prayer text; she may have thought she was increasing the book’s value. In 1998, the family put the palimpsest up for auction at Christie’s, and though there was some legal wrangling with the Jerusalem Patriarchate, who claimed the artifact had been stolen, the sale went ahead as planned. The palimpsest passed into the hands of an anonymous American buyer for the sum of $2 million.

Research on the Palimpsest Yields Several Lost Works

The new owner of the artifact immediately placed it with the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, and provided funds for research and restoration, for aside from the overwritings and clumsy forgery attempts, the manuscript was in dreadful shape, torn and covered in mold. But once the team of scientists began studying the palimpsest, using ultraviolet and infrared photography, x-rays, and digital imaging, the results were clear and momentous. For the Archimedes Palimpsest contains not only the nearly complete text of a previously unknown work, titled On the Method, but it also boasts a large portion of On Floating Bodies, the original Greek text of which is lost. In addition, there is a page of another unknown work, Stomachion, and several fragments of other of Archimedes’s works on geometry. Finally, there are ten pages containing previously unknown speeches by 4th century Athenian politician Hyperides.

Though it may have looked like nothing more than a common medieval prayer book, the application of modern technological wizardry brought its priceless secrets to light, and as work continues, there are sure to be more treasures in the offing.

Additional Source:

Freely, John (2009). Aladdin’s Lamp: How Greek Science Came to Europe Through the Islamic World. Knopf. ISBN: 030726534X.