This expression came to mind most recently while I was reading about Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. She was a woman of profound intellect with many literary accomplishments. She was, for her times, a ‘mover and shaker’. And yet, we hardly know her.
One accomplishment that draws me to such a fascinating woman from the late 17th and early 18th century is that she is responsible for bringing knowledge of small pox inoculation to England. She had had the disease and it left her scarred. When she was living in Turkey in 1717 she learned about their custom of inoculating children. She had her young son engrafted then and there. When she returned to London she shared the information with friends, some of whom had their young children inoculated. In 1721 London experienced another epidemic of small pox and Lady Mary watched many of her friends become afflicted and die. She began to advocate more wildly for prevention, but physicians disagreed about whether prevention or treatment was more important. A power struggle ensued between the College of Physicians who cared for the wealthy members of society and the Apothecaries who cared for and treated the poor. The apothecaries were charged with “quacking about in the office of physicians.” (I completely LOVE that the use of Quack in reference to false and ignorant medical skills goes back to 1659, so says the OED!) From arguments of treatment to who administers that treatment and ultimately to religious leaders disbelief the gamut of disrespect and paranoia sounds sadly familiar to the modern ear. I’m thinking of reactions to HIV/AIDS and, more recently, Ebola.
Reverend Edmund Massey actually preached an “anti-inoculation sermon”. Warning that inoculation “negates the two spiritual functions of disease”: divine punishment and divine testing. A popular pampleteer, William Wagstaffe, complained that this medical procedure came from ‘non-physicians’ and was “stemming from a country inferior.” He could not support an “experiment practiced only by a few Ignorant Women, amongst an Illiterate and unthinking people.” He suggested that inoculation was a poison and “an artful way of depopulating the Country.” The opposition press to the Royal family protested that it was “female inspired and Turkish.”
In response to this outpouring of prejudice the (male) physicians who were medically progressive and advocates for inoculation decided to undermine and bury the important contribution that women played in bringing this Oriental prevention to England. They chose to accentuate the scientific aspects only.
Thus, it has taken me 300 years to learn that Lady Mary was the progressive voice of saving lives and bringing inoculations to the West. Who else don’t I know about, yet?