On 10 April 1721, Rich Ingram 5th Viscount Irwin and owner of Temple Newsam died of a deadly epidemic of smallpox.

Smallpox had been endemic for almost 3000 years. Traces of smallpox pustules were found on the mummified remains of Pharaoh Ramesses V (1145 BC). It had a huge mortality rate (approximately 30%) with a high number of pandemic outbreaks. Throughout history it is thought to have killed more than 300 million people.

A portrait of Edward Viscount Irwin,

A portrait of Edward Viscount Irwin, on display at Temple Newsam.

Rich Ingram knew all too well the dangers of this disease, after losing his brother Edward (4th Viscount Irwin) 7 years previous. Both would have received similar treatments. In the 17th century, this often called for those who had already survived smallpox to treat the patient, as it was known that it could not be re-contracted. Remedies ranged from the obscure, such as exposing the afflicted to red objects, to the often harmful practice of bloodletting. Unsurprisingly, one 17th century doctor noted ‘those who could afford care actually seemed to be dying at a higher rate than those who couldn’t.’ Other treatments would prescribe various herbal remedies and opiates, or consuming large quantities of beer, most likely in a form of a posset (a remedy consisting of milk, curdled with ale or wine, raw eggs and spices).  Perhaps it was these harmful or ineffective practices that led to the demise of both Edward and Rich?

When Rich passed away in 1721, the title of Viscount was passed to Arthur who became the 6th Viscount Irwin. Arthur was a Member of Parliament and colleague to fellow MOP, and ambassador to Turkey, Edward Wortley Montagu. Montagu’s wife Mary would be integral in aiding with the demise of British mortality rates from smallpox. Mary had suffered and survived a severe attack of smallpox as a young woman and was left visibly scarred. Just months after Rich’s death she would help to turn the tide on smallpox.

A black and white portrait of a woman.

Mary Wortley Montagu.

While Mary had been in Turkey, she had seen a form of inoculation now called ‘variolation’. This was the process of purposefully infecting patients with the pustules of a mildly infected person, through inhalation or a more appealing scratch to the arm. This would produce a milder form of infection with a much higher survival rate. Mary popularised this process across the UK, slashing the mortality rate from 3 in 10 to 1 in 50.

a black and white portrait of dr edward jenner

Dr Edward Jenner.

However the process of variolation would be improved upon by Dr Edward Jenner. Jenner worked with an agricultural community and had supposedly noted a milkmaids fair unblemished skin, speculating that perhaps cowpox and smallpox could be related. In 1796 he began testing his theory. Jenner began his experiments using a 9 year old boy (James Pipps), purposefully inoculating him with cowpox. This outraged the church who believed this would turn people bovine. Some months later Jenner exposed Pipps to smallpox and discovered he was immune to the disease. Jenner spent another 5 years experimenting before publishing his findings in ‘On the Origin of the Vaccine Inoculation’. He would be quoted as saying “the annihilation of the smallpox, the most dreadful scourge of the human species, must be a final result of this practice”. Jenner’s vaccination had an almost 0% mortality rate making variolation obsolete (it would become illegal by 1842).

A satirical cartoon showing a doctor innoculating patients.

1804 satirical cartoon showing Dr Edward Jenner vaccinating patients, who have grown horns and are sprouting cows from their inoculations. This shows the widespread outrage and mistrust of this new science.

Unfortunately this didn’t end the spread of smallpox, which was still a huge issue worldwide. In Leeds another outbreak caused the necessity to build a specialist hospital. This would be built in part of the Temple Newsam estate in 1904. Killingbeck hall was converted into a specialist tuberculosis hospital with an isolation unit called the ‘Killingbeck Smallpox Hospital’. This and various other isolation hospitals would finally be closed and demolished in 1978 (with some buildings being converted).

A black and white photograph of Killingbeck hospital

Killingbeck Smallpox Isolation Hospital

Smallpox was finally eradicated on 8 May 1980, almost 188 years after Jenner’s prediction. This was due to a global effort headed up by the WHO (World Health Organisation) through the Eradication Program which began in 1959 and Intensified Eradication Program, beginning in 1967.

The eradication of smallpox is considered the biggest achievement in international public health.

Thankfully through the work of people like Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Dr Edward Jenner, scientific understanding of global pandemics, virus’ and disease has progressed immensely.


By Josh Turner, Visitor Assistant at Temple Newsam