Within living memory, smallpox was a dreaded disease. Over human history it has killed untold millions. Back in the eighteenth century, as epidemics swept Europe, the first rumours emerged of an effective treatment: a mysterious method called inoculation. But a key problem remained: convincing people to accept the preventative remedy, the forerunner of vaccination. Arguments raged over risks and benefits, and public resistance ran high. As smallpox ravaged her empire and threatened her court, Catherine the Great took the momentous decision to summon the Quaker physician Thomas Dimsdale to St Petersburg to carry out a secret mission that would transform both their lives. Lucy Ward expertly unveils the extraordinary story of Enlightenment ideals, female leadership and the fight to promote science over superstition.
All the descriptions of lancet cuts and pus are one thing—it is the experimentation on impoverished children that makes for painful reading ... a detailed account of a specific encounter, with fully fleshed reporting on a specific moment when two lives come into contact through the fear and treatment of a dreadful disease. More than anything, it is a biography of the birth of vaccination. As such, it is a deft and captivating chronicle of an opportune subject. How much is familiar to us now: the balance of risk in parental love; the limited power of statistics over the masses ... Ms. Ward, a former politics reporter, writes in journalistic prose that occasionally lapses into management- or even street-speak—'top-down,' 'and the rest.' And I railed at the idea of Catherine being considered quite so brave when she had random children to test on and had the education to grasp the statistical probabilities of inoculation versus disease. Still, this is an undoubtedly energetic and timely account of a man and woman united in their mission to advance science to save lives, including their own.
As Catherine sought to set an example, so does Lucy Ward: her lively and informative book is an unmistakable product of the current pandemic, throughout which misinformation, fear and bogus science have hampered efforts to slow the disease and save lives. Ward would have us follow the example of Russia’s great empress. It’s hard to argue with that.
Sparkling ... Ward sets her story in the context of the story of inoculation, and it’s all the more gripping to read having lived through the Covid vaccination campaign. Ward alerts us to the first uses of concepts we have become familiar with ... This is exactly the book we need to read at the moment, to remind us of the best of Russia under a truly enlightened leader.