ANNE, PRINCESS OF VARIOLATION
By Catherine Curzon (alias Madame Gilflurt)
Word count: 669
Summary: The introduction of variolation to the Western World
Whilst writing my book, Life in the Georgian Court, smallpox was never far away from my research notes (metaphorically, of course). In fact, it was a royal brush with smallpox that changed forever the way this deadly, devastating infection was treated.
Five years before the Elector of Hanover travelled to England to be crowned King George I, he became grandfather to a newborn girl courtesy of his son, George, Prince of Wales, later king of Great Britain and his bride, Caroline of Ansbach. She was baptised Anne, in honour of the Stuart queen whose death propelled the Elector and his family onto the English throne for generations.
The relationship between Anne’s grandparents and parents was fractious, to say the least, and eventually the feud between father and son exploded into vitriol. The Prince and Princess of Wales were exiled to Leicester House and their children were not allowed to join them, kept instead in the custody of the king.
For a child so young, this must have been devastating, and further sadness was to come in 1720 when Anne contracted smallpox. This deadly disease claimed hundreds of thousands of lives every year, and for those who survived, the long-term effects could range from blindness to disfiguring scars. Happily, Anne survived the infection, though for the rest of her life she bore the scars it left behind.
For Anne’s mother, her daughter’s battle struck a little too close to home. At the age of three Caroline had lost her own father to the disease, and watching her daughter almost suffer the same fate galvanised her into action. She determined that she must find some way to help in the fight against smallpox and devoted herself to its treatment, and hopefully, eradication.
Eventually Caroline discovered the ancient practice of variolation, a procedure that was still in its infancy in England though widely used in other parts of the world. It had been promoted by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who had first encountered the practice in Turkey. Lady Mary’s own family had been touched by the disease and, like Caroline, she was on a mission to fight smallpox, but variolation was not an easy sell to western physicians.
The practice of variolation involved taking a very small amount of infected tissue and introducing it into the body of a healthy patient. The result was a very mild infection, and from then on, immunity. Lady Mary’s medical advisor was Scottish surgeon, Charles Maitland, and Caroline was soon his devoted follower, too.
Caroline funded an experiment that took place at Newgate Prison on August 9, 1721, when half a dozen convicts were promised a pardon in return for agreeing to serve as Maitland’s guinea pigs. The procedure proved to be a success, yet she was still reluctant to subject her children to the treatment without proper testing. To this end, she funded variolation for a number of orphans in the London slums. Though her motives might have been self-interested rather than entirely altruistic, the results cannot be underestimated and no doubt many lives were saved as a result of the publicity her interest brought to the treatment.
Suitably convinced, Caroline requested that Maitland variolate the royal children and he agreed, carrying out the procedure without complications. Unwittingly, Princess Anne’s suffering contributed to an enthusiasm for variolation that saved many lives and certainly raised awareness of this ancient Eastern process for battling the scourge of smallpox. Naturally, with an illustrious lady such as Caroline of Ansbach championing the procedure, it was soon quite the done thing. In time, variolation was no longer regarded with the suspicion and outright hostility that had once greeted it, and instead became a highly popular procedure in England.
Happily, Anne’s own life was not disadvantaged by her brush with smallpox. Not one to be cowed, she spent her convalescence immersed in her studies and recovered to live a further forty years. The legacy left by her infection had an immense impact on smallpox treatment throughout the land her family ruled.
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