Catherine the Great is a well-known historical figure, but there’s so much more to learn about this Russian empress than what we see on the surface. One of the more compelling facts is that she sparked an interest in inoculation against viruses like smallpox.
Despite being a Russian leader, Catherine always saw Russia as an extension of Western Europe. She continuously immersed herself in the more progressive political philosophy, art, and science emerging from the West. But from the moment she discovered the concept of inoculation, her interest was piqued by legitimate curiosity and desperation.
Smallpox was rampant during the 18th century, and St. Petersburg was not spared by the shadow cast by the black cloud of disease. And the disease wasn’t picky; it preyed on the impoverished and royals alike. Catherine was concerned for her family’s health and survival. So after hearing about inoculation, she decided that she and her son would undergo the revolutionary health practice.
Catherine was incredibly savvy; she opted to get inoculated before her son. The gesture was not only to protect her son but also, in the event anything went wrong, she wouldn’t have anyone accusing her of poisoning her son. With some extensive research, Catherine learned about a doctor in Britain named Thomas Dimsdale. Britain was well-regarded as the mecca of inoculation technology at the time, so she believed this was her best chance at protecting her bloodline from smallpox.
However, Dimsdale refused after being asked by a Russian ambassador if he would make the trip to Russia to start an inoculation program. Dimsdale didn’t see the risk as worth the reward. After a second summons, the Russian ambassador was clearer: Dimsdale would personally inoculate the empress and her son. His opinion shifted dramatically, and he was soon on the way to St. Petersburg.
Upon his arrival, Dimsdale and Catherine have an earnest conversation about inoculation. Dimsdale was stunned and charmed by her knowledge of the subject, and Catherine was delighted to have him there. She invited him with open arms to have dinner and go to plays with her inner circle. But the more he connects with the Russian empress, his concerns grow. He implores Catherine to let him attempt some trials on women similar in size and age to her within Russia to rule out the possibility of variants. She doesn’t take him up on the offer out of confidence for the practice, but she does agree when he suggests he at least test the inoculation out on boys her son’s age.
Eventually, both she and her son were inoculated with great success. The new message she wanted to spread to her people was clear: she believed in science and reason. She went as far as to commission plays and ballets about inoculation and even introduced a holiday to celebrate her inoculation by giving everyone a day off work.
Catherine led by example in an environment plagued by more than just smallpox. Society’s underbelly was caked in murmurs of superstition and fear about science. But through Catherine’s loud and proud advocacy, Russia woke up and saw her acts as a benevolent, enlightened move towards preserving our world.
Passport Health offers a variety of vaccination and physical services to help you stay safe and healthy at home and abroad. Call 937-306-7541 or book online to schedule your appointment today.
Written for Passport Health by CJ Darnieder. CJ is a freelance writer and editor in Chicago. He is an avid lover of classical music and stand-up comedy and loves to write both in his spare time.