As smallpox outbreaks ravaged communities in the 18th century, one of the first people in Russia to embrace a precursor to vaccines was Catherine the Great, the empress famed for promoting the latest knowledge in the arts and sciences from her throne.
Catherine’s support for an early form of inoculation is captured in a letter to be sold at auction in London on Wednesday. In it, she instructs a governor-general to ensure that a smallpox prevention method called variolation was readily available in his province.
According to a translation of the letter provided by the auction house, Catherine, like many world leaders today, sought widespread protection against an infectious disease that was devastating 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 nearly all districts, and it does not call for huge expenditure.”
MacDougall’s, an auction house in London that specializes in Russian art, is auctioning the letter along with a portrait of Catherine by Dmitry Levitsky. In the portrait, the empress wears a small crown and an ermine-lined cloak.
The items together are worth an estimated $1 million to $1.6 million, according to the auction house.
The auction house listing does not identify the current owner of the objects, but it says they are from a private collection in Russia. The painting was previously exhibited in museums in St. Petersburg and Moscow, it says.
A director of the auction house, Catherine MacDougall, said the initial announcement about the auction led to more than 100 interview requests from news organizations in Russia, where there is great interest in Catherine’s inoculation 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 most important duties “should be the introduction of inoculation against smallpox, which, as we know, causes great harm, especially among the ordinary people.”
Catherine and her son Pavel Petrovich were inoculated nearly two decades earlier, in 1768.
At the time, people were inoculated using variolation, the practice of exposing people to material from an infected pustule of a patient with smallpox. The process was used for hundreds of years in India and China before being adopted in Europe. Enslaved people from Africa introduced the treatment in the United States. It is similar to, but distinct 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 a mild form of 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 had infected her husband and killed the fiancée of one of her closest advisers.
She invited an English physician, Thomas Dimsdale, to St. Petersburg to inoculate her, her son and members of her court. “She was doing it as a way to show the Russian people that it was safe and it could keep this disease at bay,” Professor Hartnett said.
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.
Afterward, Catherine wrote to her ambassador in Britain, Count Ivan Grigorievuch Chernyshev: “Starting with me and my son, who is also recovering, there is no noble house in which there are not several vaccinated persons, and many regret that they had smallpox naturally and so cannot be fashionable.”