On Catherine the Great and Smallpox

“A GOP state lawmaker in Ohio ― one of several states currently seeing a spike in new coronavirus infections ― urged constituents to “STOP GETTING TESTED” for COVID-19 in a Facebook post on Tuesday.

“Are you tired of living in a dictatorship yet?” asked Nino Vitale, who serves in the state’s House of Representatives. Testing for COVID-19 gave “the government an excuse to claim something is happening that is not happening at the magnitude they say it is happening,” he claimed.

“Have you noticed they never talk about deaths anymore, just cases?” Vitale added. “And they never talk about recoveries. They just keep adding to numbers they have been feeding us from over 3 months ago!”

Vitale in May said he would not wear a mask ― despite mask-wearing being endorsed and promoted by public health experts worldwide — because the face is the “image and likeness of God.”

Last week, he wrote on Facebook that “the only people I know” in history “that wear masks are those trying to get away with a crime. And this entire mask deal is simply that, a crime against freedom and a crime against humanity.”

This moron is an ELECTED LEGISLATOR in the State of Ohio House.  Would it not be right and just if the wrath if the Gods fell upon him?  Is he doing his job to service  the welfare and well-being of his constituents rather than prattling on like an ignorant fool?

I think not.

Are there examples among the highest of us of those who served, nay  risked their own lives to lead their people?

Let us speak of Catherine the Great, Autocrat and Empress of all Russia.

It was another age — the 18th Century — and another virus — smallpox, highly contagious, with a mortality rate of over 30 percent with another third of those who survived being blinded.  . Outbreaks ravaged whole populations, and even those who survived were often hideously ly scarred,  says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). No one’s quite positive when it first appeared in human history; there’s some evidence of smallpox on Egyptian mummies dating back to around 300 BC. The virus spread quickly and easily — through direct contact, but also by droplets produced by sneezing and coughing, since it would first appear as sores in the mouth and throat. Pustules covered the bodies of victims, who remained contagious throughout the illness, until the last scab healed and dropped off. It was nothing to mess around with.

Eradication of smallpox by way of an effective vaccine is often accredited to English physician Edward Jenner, who made the observation that those who contracted cowpox (specifically, milkmaids) didn’t develop smallpox. Jenner took material from a cowpox sore and used it to inoculate a 9-year-old boy. His theory played out: despite being exposed to smallpox, the boy didn’t acquire the virus. Jenner’s findings were published in 1801.

Dr. Thomas Dimsdale

Jenner’s method was effective, but it wasn’t the first successful weapon against smallpox. Thomas Dimsdale, another English sawbones, had also been inoculating people, but instead of using cowpox residue, he would use a small amount of actual smallpox pus.  Though some patients died, most developed a mild case of the virus, and then fully recovered — and most importantly, were immune from future infection.

Catherine II was on the throne of Russia, and smallpox was ravaging her country — 20,000 had died in Siberia alone.   It would seem that Catherine had heard of Dr. Dimsdale’s work and sent for him.

In Europe, six reigning monarchs were sent to the grave by smallpox. In Russia, one of the victims was Peter the Great‘s grandson, 15-year-old Peter II who died of smallpox on his wedding day.

Another victim thirty years later was also named Peter. It was the future Emperor Peter III, the husband of Catherine the Great. He suffered from a rather severe case of smallpox that left him with ugly scars and very little hair. The episode made the future Emperor quite hideous and destroyed his self-confidence.

Catherine had seen first hand the ravages of smallpox.  Catherine herself was spared but she saw the horrors of smallpox and probably decided to make efforts to spare her people from the kind of suffering she saw when ascending the throne.  An “enlightened” monarch with a great interest in science and the enlightenment literature of the age, she would lead Russia into its golden age converting it from a backward nation into a world power.

Dr. Dimsdale arrived in Saint Petersburg from Scotland together with his son Nathaniel in 1768 andCatherine immediately wanted to know more about his work.  Dinsdale described how he would find a young person with a very mild case of smallpox, perhaps one or two pustules, peal off the scab and collect the pus.  He would then slightly wound the recipient in the upper arm and smear the pus on the open wound and cover it.

The “inoculated” person virtually always came down with a very mild case of the disease and then fully recovered with few scars in a couple of weeks,  The inoculated person was now immune to the disease.  A few did get quite ill.  Dinsdale however was not quite sure how the virus would react here in Russia; was it different from the virus in Scotland?

Catherine knew that her people were fearful of such treatments, listening to their orthodox priests who told them it was God’s will.  Heaven picked those who would die as it determined who would sit on the throne.  Catherine knew she would have to lead her people to a potential cure.

She requested Dr. Dinsdaee to begin testing his inoculation process in Russia.  Dinsdale suggested the treatments begin on those “of lesser rank.”

Catherine said no.  She had to convince her people to accept inoculation if the treatment was safe.  And the way to do that was to be first.  She and her son, the 14 year old Crown  Prince Paul would be first.  If they survived they would be immune and the people would follow the example of their sovereign.

Facing the possibility of death, horrible scarring and blindness she arranged a series of carriages and fast horses to take Dinsdale and his son to the Russian border in things went awry.

And then she had the pus of a smallpox victim rubbed into a wound in her upper arm as well as her son’s.

Catherine and son both survived and were thereby immune. She was up nd about in 2 weeks.  The Empress announced what she had done and the results to the nation and a mass inoculation program was instituted throughout Russia.  By 1800, 2 million people had been inoculated and preserved from smallpox. She declared Dr. Dimsdale a Baron of the Russian Empire and paid him 10,000 pounds sterling.

It is an interesting lesson on caring for the welfare of your people from an 18th century absolutist monarch.  It should be read aloud in the Ohio legislature and Washington D.C..


About toritto

I was born during year four of the reign of Emperor Tiberius Claudius on the outskirts of the empire in Brooklyn. I married my high school sweetheart, the girl I took to the prom and we were together for forty years until her passing in 2004. We had four kids together and buried two together. I had a successful career in Corporate America (never got rich but made a living) and traveled the world. I am currently retired in the Tampa Bay metro area and live alone. One of my daughters is close by and one within a morning’s drive. They call their pops everyday. I try to write poetry (not very well), and about family. Occasionally I will try a historical piece relating to politics. :-)
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5 Responses to On Catherine the Great and Smallpox

  1. Pingback: On Catherine the Great and Smallpox | toritto | First Night History

  2. beetleypete says:

    £10,000 in 1768! That’s close to £2 million in today’s money. Dinsdale was well paid!
    Kudos to Catherine for doing that. I now expect Elizabeth II to be the first to test any Coronavirus vaccine. 🙂
    (As for that politician, shameful and irresponsible)
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jennie says:

    Very interesting, Frank. And yes, the story should be read aloud.

    Liked by 1 person

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