cover image The Empress and the English Doctor: How Catherine the Great Defied a Deadly Virus

The Empress and the English Doctor: How Catherine the Great Defied a Deadly Virus

Lucy Ward. Oneworld, $30 (336p) ISBN 978-0-86154-245-1

Journalist Ward debuts with an entertaining account of how a British physician assisted Catherine the Great in an inspired plan to reduce smallpox in Russia while simultaneously strengthening her political power. In 1768, Thomas Dimsdale, a Quaker doctor from Hertford who recently had published a “landmark treatise” on smallpox inoculation, traveled to Russia to inoculate Catherine the Great and her son. A forerunner to vaccination, inoculation, which involved deliberately infecting healthy patients with a controlled dose of the virus, remained controversial and frightening to many Europeans. Though Dimsdale had a “flawless record,” the risks were enormous—if Catherine died, the Russian empire might crumble and the cause of science would be set back decades. Drawing on a rich array of primary sources, Ward details how Dimsdale’s “close patient observation but light-touch intervention” enabled him to build trust with the empress in the months before the procedure. Elsewhere, Ward evokes the terror wrought by smallpox outbreaks and recounts Catherine’s savvy public relations campaign to promote the procedure, which included holding an elaborate Orthodox Church ceremony to give thanks for her successful inoculation and insisting that her infected material be used to inoculate others. Brimming with vivid historical details, this is a memorable account of a medical and social breakthrough. (June)