By Ellen Snortland
Pasadena Weekly Columnist
“You do realize your nostrils are for inhaling and exhaling?” I snort. Argh! I itch to say that when I see people walking around with masks on, but nostrils exposed. A facial moon, if you will. “For goodness sakes, pull up your mask!” At one point, I thought this was a male-only habit… and there’s my enculturated sexism laid out for me to see. It turns out women are equally capable of nostril-flashing… and much more.
My first direct “exposure” to anti-vaccination zealotry was via a woman. She was part of the herd who believes vaccinations cause autism. Given that my mother was an undiagnosed person on the autistic spectrum (educated speculation on my part), it couldn’t have been caused by vaccinations, as she didn’t even have one until the 1940s. Born in 1915, mom’s quirks were cemented in place well before that. However, verifiable facts have never deterred anti-vaxxers.
The whole topic of vaccination is intriguing. I’ve been stuck on it for a while. (Nudge, nudge… wink, wink.) Of course, there are hidden women in the history of inoculation, which should not be surprising.
We are taught in school that Edward Jenner, of smallpox fame, is the father of vaccination. However, his parentage is only partially true. He developed a scientific delivery method, but the groundwork was laid by the mother of European smallpox inoculation, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Lady Montagu had her own son undergo smallpox prevention in 1717, whereas Jenner didn’t poke anyone until 1796.
What?! “But Ellen, how could an English noblewoman have figured out vaccination?” Lady Mary was a pioneer in many ways. She dared to reject the arranged marriage her parents set for her, she rallied for women’s rights, and she experienced going from being celebrated for her great beauty to being ashamed of her face and wearing a veil. She survived smallpox but lost her beauty, yet she did not let that stop her.
Her husband, Edward Wortley Montagu, was the British ambassador to the Ottoman empire. The couple had a modern marriage for the time, so she traveled to Turkey with him. Lady Mary learned Arabic. She visited Turkish villages and was astonished at the beauty of the locals’ complexions; she could see no smallpox ravagement. Because she could speak to the women, she discovered that elderly ladies would make a circuit of their region distributing cowpox every autumn. They got their local and organic “medicine” from pox sores on livestock, and dipped needles or blades into the pox pus, and then dispensed it into the cut they made on the arms of their human patients. Voilá! No more smallpox!
This was a huge deal. By some counts, smallpox wiped out more people than the Black Plague. It also disfigured many people. When Lady Montagu learned how to prevent it, she made it her mission to get the word out. She enrolled everyone she could in that disease breakthrough from the women in Turkey. By the way, Turkey was not the only country where people practiced variolation, another term for the primitive forms of getting the pox into veins. There’s evidence of the practice in Sudan and China. It’s most likely quite ancient.
Lady Mary even brought her ideas to the British Royal Family. The Royal advisers would not consider trying this “radical” cure on any Royal children until they’d tested it first on prisoners. The six Newgate prisoners who volunteered lived and won freedom for their effort. While it’s not accurate to say that the method spread like a contagion, many elite people did jump on the variolation bandwagon to significant effect and controversy; Abigail Adams, the future FLOTUS, Catherine the Great of Russia, George Washington and, yes, the British Royal Family opened their veins on the recommendation of Lady Montagu.
Not surprisingly, smallpox intervention was considered heresy by Papal decree, which for Protestants became an inadvertent endorsement. The Pope thought vaccination to be against the will of God, and whoever took preventative measures would surely go to Hell. Sound familiar? Anti-vaxxers go way back and also way up in social rank.
So far, I’ve been mostly isolated from the proudly unvaccinated until last week. I got an unexpected visit from a dear friend who had lost her partner to a degenerative lung disorder. As my friend came in the door, I said, “It’s good to see you. I’m so sorry for your loss. Are you OK?” “Yes, as well as can be expected.” “I assume you’re vaccinated,” I said, noticing she didn’t have a mask on. “No, I am not, and I won’t be!” she declared. “I will be wearing a mask and keeping my distance then,” I said. “Me, too: I don’t want to have my DNA damaged by the molecules your body is throwing off from the vaccination you got.”
Compared to this kind of thinking, wearing a mask under the nose may not be that big a deal after all.
Ellen Snortland has written “Consider This…” for a heckuva long time, and she also coaches first-time book authors! Contact her at ellen@