How Bishop’s Stortford inoculation pioneer Thomas Dimsdale and Catherine the Great came together to fight smallpox

The first book by an Uttlesford author, exploring the unique relationship between a Bishop’s Stortford inoculation pioneer and Catherine the Great of Russia, is up for a literary prize.

Lucy Ward’s chronicle of Dr Thomas Dimsdale’s battle with smallpox that stretched from Essex to Imperial Russia has been shortlisted for the annual Pushkin Book Prize.

The award recognizes the best non-fiction writing about Russia and highlights books that combine research excellence with readability.

The Empress and the English Doctor have been shortlisted for the Pushkin House Book Prize

Lucy, 52, was inspired to write The Empress and the English Doctor: How Catherine the Great Defied a Deadly Virus after a casual conversation.

She and her partner Liam Halligan spent two years in Moscow from 2010 to 2012 with their son and two daughters while he worked as chief economist for an investment fund focused on the former Soviet Union. They now live in Saffron Walden.

“Inspiration struck in the playground,” Lucy said. “When I introduced myself to another mum at my son’s new school in England, she told me her family had a ‘Russian connection’ too.”

Lucy Ward, former Guardian journalist and freelancer, lives in Saffron Walden
Lucy Ward, former Guardian journalist and freelancer, lives in Saffron Walden

“I wanted to know more, and she told me – casually – that her great-grandfather several times had inoculated Catherine the Great against smallpox in 1768. I was immediately seized and made her say all the details while our children ran around causing mayhem. The story captivated me from that point on, even though it was another eight years before I could write it.

The family gave him access to a fascinating archive of Dimsdale’s personal papers, including letters to and from Catherine and his private medical notes documenting his post-inoculation progress.

Lucy said, “It took me a while to work my way up and adapt to some of the writing, but of course it was an amazing window into the story.”

Dr Dimsdale, from a family of doctors working in Bishop’s Stortford and Hertford, was born near Epping. After a stint as an army surgeon in Scotland, he was at the forefront of scientists battling smallpox, the scourge of the 18th century, and treating patients before Edward Jenner used the virus of cowpox to boost immunity against deadly human disease.

Dr Thomas Dimsdale (58320036)
Dr Thomas Dimsdale (58320036)

In 1767 he published “The present method of inoculation for smallpox, to which are added some experiments instituted with a view to discovering the effects of a similar treatment in natural smallpox”.

This groundbreaking work eventually brought him to the attention of Catherine II, known as Catherine the Great. As Empress of Russia from 1762 to 1796, she was the country’s last reigning empress and its longest-serving ruler.

Over the years her reputation has been marred by salacious gossip about a voracious sexual appetite, but Lucy said: “I want to bust those myths and demonstrate that the most powerful and historically significant thing she’s done with her body has been trying out cutting-edge medical technology and leading by example.

Catherine the Great (58320038)
Catherine the Great (58320038)

At Catherine’s request, Dimsdale traveled to St. Petersburg in 1768 to vaccinate her and was richly rewarded; his honors included a hereditary barony of the Russian Empire. A deep bond of trust and respect developed between the Quaker doctor and the Romanov royal.

After returning to Hertfordshire, he married his third wife and cousin Elizabeth in 1780. She was then living at 23 North Street, Bishop’s Stortford, now the Fordes furnishing store.

In 1780 Dimsdale married his third wife and cousin Elizabeth in 1780, who at the time lived at 23 North Street, now Fordes' furnishing store.
In 1780 Dimsdale married his third wife and cousin Elizabeth in 1780, who at the time lived at 23 North Street, now Fordes’ furnishing store.

She accompanied her husband when he returned to Russia at the invitation of the Empress and continued to write a memoir, An English lady at the court of Catherine the Great.

When Thomas died in 1800, aged 88, he asked to be buried in the Friends, or Quaker, cemetery, now a small park at the foot of Newtown Road. When Elizabeth died 12 years later, she was buried alongside him.

Lucy was born in North Shields and grew up in Manchester, but coincidentally her parents lived in Coopersale, less than a mile from where Dimsdale was born.

The former education reporter for the Independent and lobby correspondent for the Guardian during Tony Blair’s premiership, she understood the story during the coronavirus and used her journalistic skills to overcome research obstacles caused by the lockdown, including the ban on returning to Russia.

Lucy Ward at Thomas Dimsdale's grave in Bishop's Stortford (58320030)
Lucy Ward at Thomas Dimsdale’s grave in Bishop’s Stortford (58320030)

” I threw The empress and the English doctor just before the Covid pandemic, in November 2019. I never imagined that a book set in the 18th century would be overtaken by events! But as I researched the story and its context during the UK lockdown, I was struck by the many resonances I encountered,” she said.

“To be clear: Covid 19 is a dangerous virus, especially for certain groups, but smallpox was a devastating killer that could strike anyone and was fatal in one in five cases.

“Nevertheless, the impact of an epidemic disease on daily life was remarkably familiar: as smallpox invaded a community, markets and schools closed, courts could be suspended, people were afraid to travel and desperately sought to protect their families The pain of the loss of loved ones has resonated over the years.

“Similarly – and this is really at the heart of the book – there was widespread skepticism as well as enthusiasm around inoculation, the fundamental technology of vaccination, which came to Europe and America from Asia. and Africa in the early 18th century.

Elizabeth Dimsdale Book (58320078)
Elizabeth Dimsdale Book (58320078)

“Inoculation basically meant fighting fire with fire – giving a healthy patient a tiny dose of live virus to give them immunity – and unsurprisingly many people objected to the seemingly incomprehensible idea that deliberately making someone sick would ultimately protect them.

“The debates around risk and sanity that emerged at the time are still very much alive today, as we have seen with the emergence of Covid vaccines and discussions around coercion. Interestingly, the first written occurrence I found of the word “anti-inoculators” was in 1722 – exactly 300 years later, its successor “anti-vaxxer” is more widely used than ever.

“Nevertheless, as the story of Thomas and Catherine shows, confidence in new technology has increased dramatically over the century, so much so that in Britain doctors even foresaw the possibility of eradicating the disease. smallpox, nearly 200 years before the World Health Organization finally achieved that goal.”

Lucy hoped her second novel would continue her study of scientific progress in the 18th century. She said: “This meeting point of science, politics and culture is the theme I would like to explore.”

* The Empress and the English Doctor: How Catherine the Great Defied a Deadly Virus is published by Oneworld.

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