The swift, worldwide spread of SARS in recent months provides a small reminder of what life was like before modern medicine largely conquered the most lethal epidemic diseases. Small is the operative word here. Bad as the outbreak is, it pales in comparison to the experiences of our ancestors. Smithsonian writer Jennifer Lee Carrell brings us an engaging account of an early struggle against a deadly epidemic in The Speckled Monster: A Historical Tale of Battling Smallpox.
Focusing on two people who fought smallpox on two different continents during a 1721 outbreak, Carrell tells the stories of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, an aristocrat in England, and Zabdiel Boylston, a Boston doctor. Both were early advocates of inoculation, a practice then ill-understood and feared.
The Speckled Monster, is not history for purists. As Carrell explains clearly in her introduction, she wants to tell us a "tale," so she turns history into drama, with invented dialogue and scenes. The book is best considered a highly informed historical fiction.
Lady Montagu is a fascinating character, a strong-minded female intellectual and smallpox survivor, whose once-spectacular looks had been ruined by pockmarks. She learned about inoculation from the Turks, when her husband was ambassador to the Ottoman court. Boylston, who learned of inoculation in part from African slaves, was a more prosaic figure. But he faced the greater risk: Boston civic leaders threatened him with prosecution for attempted murder when he started his inoculations. Both Boylston and Montagu advocated introducing a mild form of smallpox virus into the skin. Their work was a crucial step in the advances that protect us today.
Although she combines fictionalized elements with the actual events that occurred, Carrell presents an intriguing story of a timely topic. The Speckled Monster is a narrative that reminds us of how far we've come thanks to the diligence and courage of pioneering doctors and ordinary citizens. Anne Bartlett is a journalist who lives in South Florida.