Dr. Dimsdale and Catherine the Great’s Fear of Smallpox

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Eva StachniakEva Stachniak brings us an exciting novel, The Winter Palace, about Catherine The Great’s early days and improbable rise to power as seen through the ever-watchful eyes of an all-but-invisible servant close to the throne. Eva was born in Wroclaw, Poland, and came to Canada in 1981. She has been a radio broadcaster and college English and Humanities lecturer. Her debut novel, Necessary Lies, won the Amazon.com/Books in Canada First Novel Award, and her second novel, Garden of Venus, has been translated into seven languages. Her third novel, The Winter Palace, has been published in Canada (Doubleday), US (Bantam) and the UK (Transworld). She lives in Toronto, where she is working on her second historical novel about Catherine the Great, The Empire of the Night. Curious Book Fans want to thank Eva for sharing some insight into the research she did  for The Winter Palace.

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Smallpox had been one of Catherine the Great’s greatest fears. When she arrived in Russia at 14, a fiancée to the Grand Duke Peter, the disease almost destroyed her future. The Grand Duke contracted smallpox and, even though he eventually recovered, it disfigured his body and made him even more awkward and insecure than he had been before. In the dark, long weeks when Peter’s life hung in the balance, Catherine knew that had he died, she would have been sent back to Zerbst without much ceremony.

She was to fear smallpox again, and again. The disease struck people around her, far too close to the throne for her liking. Ever practical and bent on controlling her fate as much as she could, the Russain empress decided to act. Inoculation against smallpox was gaining widespread popularity at that time, but like any experimental treatment it was considered dangerous and Catherine knew she had to choose the right doctor to perform the procedure.

Winter Palace (A Novel of the Young Catherine the Great), Eva StachniakThomas Dimsdale, a doctor from Hertford was the one whose inoculation method attracted Catherine’s attention. Thanks to a slim volume, The present method of inoculating for the small-pox which can be downloaded as a free google e-book: (Click here) we can see why.

Dr. Dimsdale doesn’t make his claims lightly. There are many methods of inoculation, he writes, and he advocates his own only because it has worked for him every time. Ready to acknowledge the discoveries and successes of others, he humbly admits to studying every method and taking from them all that was best. He makes an incision with a lancet and deposits the smallpox material in the fresh wound. He uses the fresh pustule of a sick person as his source, because – as he observes – old matter may not be strong enough to infect.

How does he differ from the other doctors Catherine has considered? From his book, we learn that he doesn’t cover the wound, for it would prevent him from observing how it heals. He warns his patients that they will undergo clearly defined stages of infection: the reddening, the itching, and the mild fever, and he has remedies for each stage. Bleeding is not helpful. Instead, Dr. Dimsdale advocates drinking plenty of cold water and being mildly active. Why? For activity will revive the spirit and take the mind off the worry about the disease.

Catherine must have been impressed by the long list of successful case histories Dr. Dimsdale included in his book. Catherine the GreatHe presents them in sequence, each case documented with the patient’s age, general condition, the progress of the inoculation, and the follow up treatment. For twenty years the doctor from Herdford has never lost a patient to inoculation itself, though he admits to a child dying of a fever not connected to the event and to patients whose symptoms caused him to worry considerably before he was proven right. He was fortunate, he writes “for nothing in nature can be guaranteed, and I know of cases where patients died under most professional care. But then I count the cases of those who died, against countless deaths from the disease itself, and my conscience is calmed.”

When I was writing The Winter Palace, books like Dr. Dimsdale’s made it easier to imagine the details of the eighteenth century life. I can hear his voice: matter-of-fact, rational, honest in reporting his patients’ progress. I can also hear what Catherine must have thought: this man does not make exaggerated promises, doesn’t pretend to know everything, and offers a rational explanation of what can be explained. This is the man I want to inoculate me and my son.

And she was right!


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Dr. Dimsdale and Catherine the Great's Fear of Smallpox
by Eva Stachniak

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