Smallpox inoculation had royal seal of approval 70 years before Jenner

A letter from George I, which lay uncatalogued in the Wellcome Library for over 70 years, reveals that the King urged his daughter to inoculate her children against smallpox.

In the letter to Sophia Dorothea, Queen of Prussia, George expresses relief that his grandson has recovered from a recent bout of smallpox. He urges his daughter to protect her other children from the disease. 

The letter was written in 1724, 70 years before Jenner began his experiments with cowpox. 

At that time inoculation was a new and risky technique. The crude process involved taking pus from someone with smallpox and deliberately infecting a healthy person by putting it into a scrape in their skin. This could give immunity against future, more dangerous, infections, but in some cases proved fatal. 

The dangerous and disfiguring disease threatened everyone – including royal families – and terrified people.

Despite Jenner’s transformative discoveries in 1796, the threat lasted for a further 250 years until smallpox was eradicated in 1980.


Read more about George’s letter in the Guardian or in the catalogue entry on the Wellcome Library website.