The Circus

The Circus

Pp. 253-254

21st C/18th C

Time for my flu jab. I wonder what Margaret Gainsborough would have made of this annual pilgrimage to the doctor's surgery in Great Pulteney Street? Educated people in her day resorted largely to popular healers and remedies based on folk beliefs and practices. BUT... a decade before she was born that intrepid traveller, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, was visiting Turkey in 1717, the first English woman to do so, and the first female traveller to be invited into Turkish harems which she described in fascinating detail.

The women who lived in these isolated conditions were, on that occasion, practically naked (no men except eunuchs were allowed of course) and were fascinated by her clothing. They insisted that she undress too, and join them in the baths. When she desisted, they became so offended, she agreed to unfasten her shirt to the point where they could see her stays. Then they saw for themselves how rigidly encased she was, as if in a 'machine' which she could not easily get out of without assistance, as the laced fastening was all at the back. The Turkish women commiserated with her, blaming her husband, believing that he used the contraption deliberately as an enforced chastity device.

On this visit she described how a particular 'set of old women' in the town offered to perform an operation every autumn called 'ingrafting' to prevent the spread of the dreaded small-pox. Families with children gathered together and the old women arrived carrying nut-shells filled with small-pox matter taken from a sufferer. Asking which veins you, the patient, preferred to have opened, one of the women would rip open a vein with a large needle (causing, claimed the intrepid Lady Mary, no more pain than a regular scratch) and insert a tiny amount of the small-pox pus before binding up the wound using a hollow bit of shell to protect it.

This procedure was repeated four or five times on each patient and as these incisions left tiny permanent marks, the individual might choose to have them performed on veins in parts of the arms or legs which could be easily concealed under clothing.

All would be well until the eighth day when the small-pox fever kicked in and a child would be put to bed for two days. Pox marks would appear on the face, but leave no marks, and after a further period of eight days the patient would be completely better and never suffered the dreaded small-pox infection again.

Lady Mary claimed that every year thousands of Turks chose to submit themselves and their children to this procedure and, on the basis of what she saw, she decided to submit her own small son, who travelled with her, to the needle. She did so and at the same time wrote to a friend saying that she was determined to introduce the system to England. Which she did on her return.

A decade later, when Margaret and Thomas Gainsborough were babes in arms, small-pox vaccination was available to those English parents brave enough to use it.