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The Empress and the English Doctor: How Bishop's Stortford's inoculation pioneer Thomas Dimsdale and Catherine the Great united to fight smallpox



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An Uttlesford author's debut book, exploring the unique relationship between an inoculation pioneer from Bishop's Stortford and Catherine the Great of Russia, is in the running for a literary award.

Lucy Ward's chronicle of Dr Thomas Dimsdale's battle against smallpox that stretched from Essex to imperial Russia has been short-listed for the annual Pushkin House Book Prize.

The award recognises the very best non-fiction writing on Russia and highlights books which combine excellence in research with readability.

The Empress and the English Doctor has been short-listed for the Pushkin House Book Prize
The Empress and the English Doctor has been short-listed 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 chance conversation.

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

"Inspiration struck in the school playground," said Lucy. "When I introduced myself to another mum at my son's new school back in England, she told me her family also had 'a Russian connection'."

Former Guardian and Independent journalist Lucy Ward lives in Saffron Walden
Former Guardian and Independent journalist Lucy Ward lives in Saffron Walden

"I wanted to know more, and she told me – quite casually – that her many-times great-grandfather had inoculated Catherine the Great against smallpox in 1768. I was instantly gripped and made her tell me all the details while our kids ran around causing mayhem. The story enthralled me from that moment on, though it was another eight years before I was able to write it."

The family gave her access to a fascinating archive of Dimsdale's personal papers, including letters to and from Catherine and his private medical notes documenting her progress after the inoculation.

Lucy said: "It took me a while to work my way through and adjust to some of the handwriting, but of course it was an unbelievable window onto the story."

Dr Dimsdale, who came from a family of medics working in Bishop's Stortford and Hertford, was born near Epping. After a stint as an army surgeon in Scotland, he was in the vanguard of scientists fighting smallpox, the scourge of the 18th century, and was treating patients before Edward Jenner used the cowpox virus to build immunity against the deadly human disease.

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

In 1767, he published "The Present Method of Inoculating for the Small-pox, to which are added some experiments instituted with a view to discover the effects of a similar treatment in the Natural Small-pox".

This ground-breaking work ultimately brought him to the attention of Catherine II, known as Catherine the Great. As Empress of Russia from 1762 until 1796, she was the country's last empress regnant and its longest-ruling female leader.

Over the years her reputation has been sullied 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 important thing she did with her body was to trial a cutting-edge medical technology and set an example."

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

At Catherine's request, Dimsdale visited St Petersburg in 1768 to inoculate her and was richly rewarded; his honours 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 his return to Hertfordshire, he married his third wife and cousin Elizabeth in 1780. At the time she was living at 23 North Street, Bishop's Stortford, now the Fordes home furnishing shop.

In 1780 Dimsdale married his third wife and cousin Elizabeth in 1780, who at the time was living at 23 North Street, now home furnishing shop Fordes
In 1780 Dimsdale married his third wife and cousin Elizabeth in 1780, who at the time was living at 23 North Street, now home furnishing shop Fordes

She accompanied her husband when he returned to Russia at the invitation of the empress and went on 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 interred in the Friends', or Quaker, burial ground, 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 by coincidence her grandparents 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 got to grips with the story during coronavirus and used her journalistic skills to overcome the obstacles to research caused by lockdown, including a ban on returning to Russia.

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

"I pitched The Empress and the English Doctor just before the Covid pandemic, in November 2019. I never anticipated a book set in the 18th century would be overtaken by events! But as I researched the story and its background during lockdown in the UK, I was struck by the many resonances I encountered," she said.

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

"Nevertheless, the impact of epidemic disease on daily life was remarkably familiar: as smallpox swept into a community, markets and schools would close, courts might be suspended, people would be afraid to travel and were desperate to protect their families. The pain of the loss of loved ones rang down the years.

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

Elizabeth Dimsdale's book (58320078)
Elizabeth Dimsdale's book (58320078)

"Inoculation essentially meant fighting fire with fire – giving a healthy patient a minute dose of live virus to confer immunity – and unsurprisingly many people objected to the apparently incomprehensible notion that deliberately making someone ill would ultimately protect them.

"The debates around risk and reason that emerged then are still very much alive today, as we saw with the emergence of the Covid vaccines and discussions around compulsion. 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 Thomas and Catherine's story demonstrates, confidence in the new technology increased dramatically over the century, to the point that in Britain doctors even foresaw the possibility of eradicating smallpox, almost 200 years before the World Health Organisation finally achieved that goal."

Lucy hoped her second book would continue her study of scientific advances in the 18th century. She said: "That meeting point of science, politics and culture is the theme I'd 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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