No one on earth has ever seen “the speckled monster” (smallpox) at full force, yet it was once "far and away the most vicious killer ever to stalk the human species." More deadly than the Black Plague, because it was no respecter of seasons. While the plague would die back for years at a time, smallpox was perennial. Unlike tuberculosis, a murderous monster of more recent times, it was no respecter of social class - it entered the hovels of the poor and the palaces of royalty, striking down kings, beggars, and little princes in their beds.
Jennifer Lee Carrell has researched her book in tireless, sometimes harrowing detail, so that we who never witnessed it - the last known case of smallpox anywhere was reported in 1977 - are brought within inches of the insidious machinations of the tireless killer doing its worst. It was called "the speckled monster" because variola in its early phase mockingly resembles measles, but as the infection rapidly spreads through the body, it shows its true hideous character: "The queen's face swelled as her mouth, nose and throat filled with so many blisters that they ran together into one raw sore...blood seeped from around her eyes and through her gums...the slightest touch against her, peeled her skin away in strips, leaving her shivering like a creature flayed alive." This was hemorrhagic smallpox, invariably fatal, taking its course in six days or less.
Survivors of the less surely fatal variations of the disease would be scarred, grotesquely, for life. Such was the fate of Lady Mary Montagu, the heroine of Carrell's account. A great beauty, favored companion of noblemen and the king of England, Lady Mary was attacked by smallpox in her youthful prime, and rarely afterwards ever appeared publicly without a veil. A woman of letters, a poet and unusually forthright for a female of the early 1700s, she accompanied her husband to Turkey and there learned of a technique known as variolation, known to the modern world as inoculation. Turkish women and others throughout the "less civilized" world, had for centuries immunized family and friends with the pox itself, in a brutal but brief surgery. Those so immunized had about an 80% chance of never getting smallpox. Was that chance enough to convince the English establishment that everyone should submit to the procedure? When questioned whether it was worth the risk, Lady Mary would uncover her disfigured face, as a single, simple, poignant reason.
Lady Mary had her own children inoculated, inviting the scorn and suspicion of her peers. But she was visited frequently, clandestinely, by desperate parents who sought knowledge of the process that could save their little ones. She became an outspoken campaigner in the fight against the disease.
Simultaneously, in an intriguing historical parallel, Zabdiel Boyleston, an American physician, also survived the disease and inoculated his children, inspired by a handful of believers. Among them was the renowned Cotton Mather, who learned of the treatment from his African slaves. While such a process could have been seen as tantamount to witchcraft in eighteenth-century Boston, Zabdiel championed the procedure despite the pressures against him, including attempts on his life. This led eventually to general acceptance of variolation and, by 1790, to the discovery of the benign virus, cowpox, a gentler weapon against this most savage of killers.
Carrell links the two unlikely heroes - Boyleston, a practical, pioneering American of no distinguished lineage, and Lady Mary who consorted with the fabled poets and intellectuals of her day - through their similar agonies with the disease and their conviction, despite fears, threats and misgivings, that their children should be inoculated. Careful to cite her sources, Jennifer Lee Carrell creates a rich, novelistic chronicle - combination science, history and a well-told human-scale story that will satisfy readers on several levels.