As an outbreak of smallpox ravaged communities in the 18th century, one of the first to embrace the forerunner of vaccines in Russia was Catherine the Great, the Empress from her throne to promote the latest knowledge in the arts and sciences. was famous for.
Catherine’s support for the initial vaccine is captured in a letter sold at auction in London on Wednesday. In it, she instructs a governor-general to ensure that a method of smallpox prevention called variolation was readily available in her province.
According to a translation of the letter provided by the auction house, Catherine, like many of today’s world leaders, sought comprehensive protection against an infectious disease ravaging her empire. “Such vaccination should be common everywhere,” she wrote, “and it is now more convenient, because almost all districts have doctors or medical attendants, and it does not cost much.”
McDougall, an auction house in London that specializes in Russian art, is auctioning letters by Dmitry Levitsky with a portrait of Catherine. In the picture, the empress wears a small crown and an omen-lined cloak.
According to the auction house, the items together are worth an estimated $1 million to $1.6 million.
The auction house listing does not identify the current owner of the items, but does say they are from a private collection in Russia. The painting was previously exhibited in museums in St. Petersburg and Moscow, it says.
Katherine McDougall, a director of the auction house, said the initial announcement about the auction led to more than 100 interview requests from news organizations in Russia, where there is great interest in Katherine’s vaccination efforts.
The letter is dated April 20, 1787, and is addressed to a Russian army officer, Pyotr Alexandrovich Rumiantsev, who was known as Count Zadunsky. Catherine wrote in the letter that one of Rumyantsev’s most important duties “should be the introduction of vaccination against smallpox, which, as we know, causes great harm, especially among the common people.”
Catherine and her son Pavel Petrovich were vaccinated almost two decades earlier, in 1768.
At the time, people were vaccinated using variolation, the practice of exposing people to material from an infected blister from a patient with smallpox. The process was used for hundreds of years in India and China before being adopted in Europe. The enslaved people of Africa introduced healing to the United States. This is similar to, but different from, vaccination, which uses a less harmful version of a virus.
Many were wary of the practice, which sometimes resulted in death or outbreaks of a mild form of smallpox.
These concerns prompted Catherine to show her support for it.
Lynn Hartnett, an associate professor of history at Villanova University, said Catherine was terrified of smallpox, which had infected her husband and killed the fiancée of one of her closest advisers.
He invited an English physician, Thomas Dimsdale, to St Petersburg to inoculate him, his son and members of his court. “She was doing it to show the Russian people that it was safe and that it could keep this disease at bay,” Professor Hartnett said.
Katherine provides Dimsdale with a carriage and protection in case she dies and needs an urgent passage out of Russia. Instead, she recovered from the vaccination and a holiday was declared to commemorate the event.
Later, Catherine wrote to her ambassador to Britain, Count Ivan Grigorievich Chernyshev: “With me and my son, who is recovering, there is no great house that does not have many vaccinated individuals, and many are sorry that they naturally had smallpox and therefore could not be fashionable.”