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1787 letter from Catherine the Great shows that she supported inoculations: “They should be common everywhere”

A letter written by Russian Empress Catherine the Great extolling the virtues of smallpox vaccination is to be auctioned off in London on Wednesday.

The letter was presented to the public in Moscow by MacDougall’s auction house on November 18 with a portrait of the Russian ruler of German descent. The letter and painting will remain in a gallery in Moscow until November 30 before being auctioned in London.

The auction house said the letter and painting together are valued at between £ 800,000 and £ 1.2million.

The letter, dated April 20, 1787, is addressed to a Russian army officer, Count Pyotr Aleksandrovich Rumiantsev, instructing him on smallpox vaccination in parts of present-day Ukraine.

“Count Pyotr Aleksandrovich, among the other tasks of the welfare councils in the provinces entrusted to you, one of the most important should be the introduction of vaccination against smallpox, which, as we know, causes a great evil, especially among ordinary people, ”wrote the Empress.

“Such vaccination should be common everywhere, and it is now all the more practical as there are doctors or paramedics in almost all districts, and this does not entail huge expenses,” the letter adds. . The letter also included detailed instructions on how to conduct the vaccination campaign as well as how to cover the expenses incurred in doing so.

Smallpox epidemics were still severe in eighteenth-century Europe, and the task of inoculating Catherine the Great’s empire was meeting resistance on the ground. This was a technique known as variolation, which consisted of deliberately infecting the patient with the help of dried smallpox scabs. The recipient would have a mild case of the disease and then retain immunity thereafter.

The ruler, who would have been the first person to be vaccinated this way against smallpox in Russia, had already been vaccinated for 20 years at the time of writing.

Speaking to reporters practically on Thursday, historian Oleg Khromov said the Empress had been vaccinated against the disease by an English doctor. He was injected with a sample from a child, who was later awarded a title. Mr Khromov said the letter was “unique, especially given the situation we all find ourselves in”.

Catherine the Great was Russia’s longest-serving ruler and held the throne between 1762 and 1796.

As in the 18th century, there was resistance to vaccinations in Russia during the Covid-19 pandemic as well.

“In today’s conditions, we should be very proud of Catherine,” Yekaterina MacDougall, co-director of the auction house and Russian art expert, told reporters on Thursday during a press visit, AFP news agency reported..

While Russian President Vladimir Putin took the local Sputnik vaccine, the Russian population hesitated to vaccinate them.

Only 43.5% of the Russian population was vaccinated as of November 28. Despite a drop in the number of infections, the average daily number of deaths in the country remains near an all-time high.


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