Catherine the Great's letter shows support for inoculations

As smallpox epidemics ravaged communities in the 18th century, one of the first people in Russia to adopt a vaccine precursor was Cather...


As smallpox epidemics ravaged communities in the 18th century, one of the first people in Russia to adopt a vaccine precursor was Catherine the Great, the Empress famous for promoting the latest knowledge in the arts and sciences from her throne.

Catherine’s support for an early form of inoculation is documented in a letter that will be auctioned in London on Wednesday. In it, she assigns a governor general to ensure that a smallpox prevention method called smallpox is readily available in her province.

According to a translation of the letter provided by the auction house, Catherine, like many world leaders today, sought widespread protection against an infectious disease that was devastating her empire. “Such vaccination should be common everywhere,” she writes, “and it is now all the more practical as there are doctors or paramedics in almost all districts, and this does not entail any expense. huge. “

MacDougall’s, a London auction house specializing in Russian art, is auctioning off the letter along with a portrait of Catherine by Dmitry Levitsky. In the portrait, the Empress wears a small crown and an ermine-lined mantle.

The items together are worth between $ 1 million and $ 1.6 million, depending on the auction house.

The auction house listing does not identify the current owner of the objects, but indicates that they are from a private collection in Russia. The painting has already been exhibited in museums in St. Petersburg and Moscow, he says.

A director of the auction house, Catherine MacDougall, said the initial announcement of the auction led to more than 100 requests for interviews from news agencies in Russia, where efforts to Catherine’s vaccination arouse great interest.

The letter is dated April 20, 1787 and addressed to an officer in the Russian army, Pyotr Aleksandrovich Rumiantsev, known as Count Zadunaysky. Catherine wrote in the letter that one of the most important tasks of Rumiantsev “should be the introduction of vaccination against smallpox, which, as we know, causes great damage, especially among ordinary people”.

Catherine and her son Pavel Petrovich were inoculated almost two decades earlier, in 1768.

Back then, people were inoculated with smallpox, the practice of exposing people to material from an infected pustule of a smallpox patient. The process was used for hundreds of years in India and China before being adopted in Europe. Slaves from Africa brought processing to the United States. It is similar but distinct from vaccination, which uses a less harmful version of a virus.

Many people were suspicious of this practice, which sometimes led to to deaths or epidemics a mild form of smallpox.

These concerns prompted Catherine to show her support.

Lynne Hartnett, associate professor of history at Villanova University, said Catherine was terrified of smallpox, which had infected her husband and killed the fiancee of one of his closest advisers.

She invited an English physician, Thomas Dimsdale, to St. Petersburg to inoculate her, her son, and members of her court. “She was doing this as a way to show the Russian people that it was safe and that it could keep this disease at bay,” Professor Hartnett said.

Catherine provided Dimsdale with a car and protection in case she died and he needed an urgent route out of Russia. Instead, she recovered from the inoculation and a holiday was declared to celebrate the event.

Catherine subsequently wrote to her Ambassador to Great Britain, Count Ivan Grigorievuch Chernyshev: “Starting with me and my son, who is also recovering, there is no noble house in which there is no not many people vaccinated, and many regret having had smallpox naturally. and therefore cannot be fashionable.

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