Catherine the Great embraced vaccinations and deemed anti-vaxxers ignorant

Chloe Foussianes
·2-min read
Photo credit: Michael Stillwell/Getty Images
Photo credit: Michael Stillwell/Getty Images

From Harper's BAZAAR

Ah, Catherine the Great. You may know her for her many appearances on film and television—most recently in the guises of Elle Fanning and Helen Mirren—or, perhaps, for that myth about the horse. (Listen, if men are so emasculated by you and your decades-long reign that they resort to spreading bestiality-related gossip, you've probably done something right.) But amid a pandemic and a global vaccination effort, there's another element of Empress Catherine II's legacy worth revisiting: her early embrace of vaccination.

It was during Catherine's reign that the first-ever inoculation (an early version of vaccination), designed to protect against smallpox, was invented. A lover of science and all the advances brought forth by the Enlightenment, the monarch embraced this medical innovation with open arms, becoming the first person in Russia to undergo the procedure in 1768. And then she promptly deemed anyone who didn't get inoculated an idiot. Truly, ahead of her time.

This was made possible by one Thomas Dimsdale, a British doctor and the Pfizer and Moderna of his day. His crude method involved slicing two or three times into a patient's arm and grating pustules from a smallpox patient into the open wound. Unlike with today's vaccinations, there a chance that recipients might die of smallpox after undergoing the procedure—hence why Dimsdale made a point to keep horses ready outside the Russian court, should he need to escape after accidentally killing the Empress. Fortunately, all went well, and Dimsdale was even named a Baron of the Russian Empire for his trouble.

Photo credit: Print Collector - Getty Images
Photo credit: Print Collector - Getty Images

Afterwards, Catherine shared the good news with her buddy Voltaire, and made a point to declare inoculation skeptics "truly blockheads, ignorant or just wicked," per Wired. Indeed, there was a lot of fear about the procedure in Russia (much more understandable than the anti-vax movement today, because inoculation was a pretty new concept, and also there was that pesky risk of death), but Catherine's willingness to be inoculated herself helped build public trust. A subsequent mass campaign saw 20,000 Russians receive inoculations by 1780, and by 1800, over two million.

What conclusions can be drawn from this? First, that Catherine the Great was indeed great. Second, that trusted public figures receiving a vaccine will encourage others to the same. Third, that nothing is ever new, and that we're doomed to repeat the same scenarios every century or so. Happy vaccinating!

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