A Look Back at Vaccines

Mary Wortley Montague public domain

As various strains of the flu claim lives this week, I take a look back at a time before vaccines, when people tried to protect themselves from deadly epidemics with desperate measures.  The passage below is an excerpt from my book, Jonas Salk: The Battle Against Polio.  The passage refers not to polio, but to smallpox.  The idea of induced immunity took hold among some.  Variolation–deliberately infecting the healthy with smallpox–was one early practice.  A diplomat’s wife, Lady Mary Wortley, introduced the practice to Europe.

Lady Wortley’s practice was not that far removed from the development of the polio vaccine.  In the twentieth century, two varieties became available.  One, the Salk vaccine, introduced a killed virus into a healthy person.  The other, the Sabin vaccine, introduced a weakened, live virus.  Each of these vaccines carried risks, though the risks were not as great as they had been with variolation.

  What follows is a brief description of Lady Mary Wortley’s experience with variolation.

In 1716 Lady Mary Wortley Montagu accompanied her husband, Edward, to Istanbul, where he became Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. In Istanbul Lady learned about variolation. Lady Mary’s brother had died from smallpox and she had survived the disease. Although little was understood about smallpox, one thing was certain: once people survived the disease, they would never catch it again. This was the wisdom behind variolation.

The Ottomans dealt with smallpox by taking a small bit of dried material from the scab of someone who was infected with a mild case of the disease. The dried material would be blown into the nostrils of a healthy person. The idea was to make the healthy person come down with a mild case of smallpox and gain immunity from the disease for life. This was the Ottoman version of variolation.

When Lady Mary brought the practice to Europe, it was a little different. In Europe, material would be scraped from a smallpox scab on someone who was actively suffering from the disease. This material would then be scraped into the skin of a healthy person. That person, it was hoped, would come down with a mild form of smallpox, survive, and then have immunity for life.

Variolation was widely used, especially among the powerful. Though many did not trust the procedure, it was the only way to induce immunity from smallpox until Edward Jenner discovered a vaccine. Variolation was largely abandoned after Jenner’s vaccine because it was possible to come down with severe cases of smallpox as a result of the procedure. There were deaths from variolation.

A. G. Moore

February 5, 2018

The Irish Brigade: Book Review

irish brigade Gen._Robert_Nugent_and_his_staff,_Irish_Brigade,_Washington,_D.C._(vicinity)
Brigadier General Robert Nugent poses with the Irish Brigade in Washington, D.C.   1865


“The Irish Brigade”, by Steven J. Wright, is a slim volume that packs an emotional wallop far out of proportion to its size. In a mere sixty pages, the book offers vivid photos and moving descriptions of the Irish who fought in the United States Civil War. There is no shortage of heroism or honor on display in this book. But just as these traits are heralded, so is the tragedy of war driven home.

Most of the people featured in the book did not survive the War. This is a startling reality. Letters to family from fallen soldiers highlight the toll war took on millions from both the North and the South. Although some Irish did join the Confederate effort, overwhelmingly, these men fought with the Union army.

Though sourcing in this book is necessarily selective, because of its size, the material cited is very affecting. A wealth of first-person accounts captures the experience of war.

I found the book in a local library. It is listed for sale in most places as a collectible or rare book. The book would be of particular interest to Civil War buffs or to those who would like to learn about Irish-American history.  I highly recommend Steven J. Wright’s “The Irish Brigade”.

A. G. Moore  June, 2017

The Rise of Prince: 1958-1988 Book Review

An icon, by its nature, is symbolic. Herein lies the difficulty for creatures of flesh and blood who are declared icons. This is an impossible standard to meet, and yet it is one we set for public figures on a regular basis. Just as regularly, they disappoint. As I read The Rise of Prince: 1958-1988 I became aware of the gap between image and reality. This gap exists not because of anything Prince failed to do. It exists because of an ideal I created, an ideal that was important to me. Therein lies the peril of reading the biography of someone we idealize.

The Rise of Prince: 1958-1988, is a responsibly-researched and well-written book. It offers an impressive amount of information about musicology and the music industry. The book’s authors, Alex Hahn and Laura Tiebert, delve deeply into the background and early life of Prince. They do so without engaging in pop psychology. Whatever conclusions may be drawn about Prince’s psyche, the authors leave that work to the reader. This is appropriate.

Any disappointment readers might feel about this book will likely come from the fact that it does not bring Prince’s biography up to the present. Of course, the authors don’t promise to do that. Even so, as the book concluded I wanted to read beyond, to understand how Prince ended up overdosing in the elevator of his home. The Rise of Prince: 1988-2016 would therefore be welcome.

The Rise of Prince: 1958-1988 does not induce snap judgments about the performer’s personality. The narrative crafted by Hahn and Tiebert is too textured for that. One unavoidable conclusion, though, is that Prince did not form enduring bonds with associates. He guarded his prominence in the music world and in public. Those colleagues who distracted, even innocently, from his star stature, did not remain in his close circle.

Prince was a natural-born artist, the son of two performers. His talent was noted in early childhood and his unique skills recognized throughout his career. The most surprising part of this biography for me was that ambition for commercial success was a prime motivator in his life.

Whatever mix of natural talent, inspiration and ambition led to his output, Prince had an undeniable influence on the music of his time, and on musicians who came after. He was a human being, and a legend. The difficulty of reconciling these two realities becomes clear in The Rise of Prince: 1958-1988. The authors’ relative success in achieving this reconciliation makes the book a worthwhile read.