As smallpox outbreaks devastated communities in the 18th century, one of the first people in Russia to embrace a precursor to vaccines 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 vaccination is documented in a letter that sold at auction for $1.3 million in London on Wednesday. In it, she instructs a governor general to ensure that a method of preventing smallpox, called variolation, is available in his province.
According to a translation of the auction house’s letter, Catherine, like many world leaders today, sought widespread protection from a contagious disease that was destroying her empire. “Such inoculation should be common everywhere,” she wrote, “and it is now all the more convenient, since there are doctors or medical attendants in almost all districts, and it doesn’t require huge expenditure.”
MacDougall’s, a London auction house specializing in Russian art, auctioned the letter along with a portrait of Catherine by Dmitry Levitsky. In the portrait, the Empress is wearing a small crown and an ermine-lined cloak.
Before the sale, the auction house estimated that the items together were worth $1 million to $1.6 million.
The auction house listing did not identify the objects’ previous owner, but it said they came from a private collection in Russia. The painting had previously been exhibited in museums in St. Petersburg and Moscow.
An auction house director, Catherine MacDougall, said the initial announcement about the auction sparked more than 100 interview requests from news organizations in Russia, where there is great interest in Catherine’s vaccination efforts.
The letter is dated April 20, 1787 and addressed to a Russian army officer, Piotr Aleksandrovich Rumiantsev, who was known as Count Zadunaysky. Catherine wrote in the letter that one of Rumiantsev’s main tasks should be “the introduction of inoculation 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 pimple from a patient with smallpox. The process was used in India and China for hundreds of years before being introduced to Europe. Enslaved people from Africa introduced the treatment to the United States. It is similar to, but different from, vaccination, which uses a less harmful version of a virus.
Many people were wary of the practice, which sometimes led to deaths or outbreaks of mild smallpox.
These concerns prompted Catherine to show her support for it.
Lynne Hartnett, an associate professor of history at Villanova University, said Catherine was terrified of smallpox, which infected her husband and killed the fiancée of one of her closest advisers.
She invited an English physician, Thomas Dimsdale, to St. Petersburg to vaccinate her, her son, and members of her court. “She did it as a way to show the Russian people that it was safe and that it could keep this disease at bay,” said Professor Hartnett.
Catherine provided Dimsdale with a carriage 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.
Afterwards, Catherine wrote to her ambassador to Britain, Count Ivan Grigorievuch Chernyshev: “To begin with me and my son, who is also recovering, there is no noble house where there are not several vaccinated persons, and many regret that they naturally had smallpox and so cannot be fashionable.”