Ysenda Maxtone Graham
A Times Best Book of the Year So Far, April 2022. Fairytale sleigh rides, royal palaces and heroic risk-taking by an enlightened empress — this sparkling history is a timely reminder of the best of Russia, says Ysenda Maxtone Graham
“The Empress and the English Doctor” is a detailed account of a specific encounter, with fully fleshed reporting on a specific moment when two lives come into contact through the fear and treatment of a dreadful disease. More than anything, it is a biography of the birth of vaccination. As such, it is a deft and captivating chronicle of an opportune subject. How much is familiar to us now: the balance of risk in parental love; the limited power of statistics over the masses. ...This is an undoubtedly energetic and timely account of a man and woman united in their mission to advance science to save lives, including their own.
As Catherine sought to set an example, so does Lucy Ward: her lively and informative book is an unmistakable product of the current pandemic, throughout which misinformation, fear and bogus science have hampered efforts to slow the disease and save lives. Ward would have us follow the example of Russia’s great empress. It’s hard to argue with that.
Constance Craig Smith
This gripping account of her deep friendship with an English doctor — and their battle to save the Russian people from the scourge of smallpox — shows her in an entirely different light.
Catherine the Great of Russia’s decision to get both herself and her son inoculated certainly resonates in these contagious times. It marked a watershed in popular acceptance of the prophylactic technique and showed the power of leadership by example. Irresponsible rulers of the covid-19 era could take a leaf out of the empress’s book.
The centrepiece of The Empress and the English Doctor is the trip to St Petersburg during which Dimsdale inoculated both Catherine and her son and short-lived successor, Paul, against smallpox. Ward ably contextualises the event within the intellectual currents of the era. “Smallpox inoculation, that new and counterintuitive practice whose effectiveness was proven by experience rather than ancient theory, perfectly fitted the emerging scientific spirit”, she writes. “The very nature of the intervention spoke of mastery.” ...The book, written during the COVID-19 pandemic, is informed by the furore that has attended the roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines. “Inoculation, like its successor vaccination, occupied the shadowy borderland between the rigour of science and the infinite complexity of human nature”, Ward astutely notes. “On the other side of the border lay the fear, disbelief and resistance to the laws of probability that make humans such poor assessors of risk.” There were all kinds of reasons why Catherine chose to have herself inoculated against smallpox, not least of which was her instinctive awareness of the power of example. But Ward’s book is also a story of how the values of enquiry and empiricism transformed medicine, leading in time to possibly the greatest public health triumph of all: the eradication of smallpox.
Ward’s entertaining and well-researched book gallops through the other medical landmarks and brave pioneers in the story of inoculation, before focusing on the warm relationship between these two compelling characters. Dimsdale, who had been made all too aware that nothing less than the fate of the Russian people hung in the balance, successfully inoculated both royal persons, whereupon Catherine, whom he clearly worshipped, made maximum propaganda from his success with magnificent celebrations and a commemorative bronze medal.
So meticulously researched, well-paced and finely written is this tale of medical drama and royal daring that one quickly forgets that it is Lucy Ward’s first book. Her story is a remarkable one, full of contemporary resonance, but fascinating in its own right: in 1768, a Hertfordshire inoculator, Thomas Dimsdale, arrived at Catherine II’s Winter Palace in St Petersburg to help the Empress Regnant with a challenge that, if mishandled, would have geopolitical consequences. As smallpox – the “speckled monster” – continued its deadly march, Catherine was horrified that her sickly son and heir, Paul, might catch the disease and perish; and had calculated that the best course of action was to seek his inoculation. This decision was not free of risk, since the procedure involved the patient being given a tiny dose of the virus drawn from the pus of the infected; and hoping that the consequence was immunity rather than the full-blown spread of the disease. Consider Catherine’s second major decision – to be the donor of the pus herself – and you can see why she and Dimsdale bonded in this moment of extreme medical, dynastic and national peril. I will not spoil the gripping detail and twists of the story – suffice it to say that Catherine’s courageous strategy led, in time, to the mass inoculation of the Russian people. This is a real page-turner, and a debut that makes the reader look forward very much to the author’s next project.
Drawing on a rich array of primary sources... Brimming with vivid historical details, this is a memorable account of a medical and social breakthrough.
A poignant tale, expertly researched and beautifully written, imbued with a journalistic flare found only in those who’ve spent decades cutting their teeth in the industry. Most important, however, is its veracity. It is a true story and equally, a story of universality... In writing this book Lucy Ward has reclaimed the narrative surrounding what is surely one of the great triumphs of the Empress’s impressive reign. That her work should speak to immunisation as well as Russia at a time when both topics, controversial as they are, dominate the news cycle is enough to grab this reviewer’s attention.
With Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day both falling in March, the recent publication of The Empress and the English Doctor: How Catherine the Great defied a deadly virus is very well-timed. The author, Lucy Ward, is a former journalist for The Independent and The Guardian. She also campaigned for greater female representation during her time as a Westminster Lobby correspondent. With such a passion for women’s empowerment and a fascinating herstory to tell, Lucy was an ideal ‘Author Spotlight’ guest.
I might have found a new idol in The Empress and the English Doctor. Catherine the Great was, for a lack of better words, a boss ass bitch. Besides the fact that she overthrew her husband and earned her place as Empress of Russia, she was intelligent, curious, defied gender roles, and openly explored her sexuality. After all the work she’d done to get where she was, she wasn’t about to let a disease weaken her country. So she partnered with Thomas Dimsdale, publicly underwent inoculation, and ultimately changed the course of mass inoculation in Europe. And that’s just scratching the surface. Lucy Ward does a much better job of describing the historical partnership between these two exceptional people. So many details – such as the damage smallpox caused, other contributors to mass inoculation, and the fact that so many attitudes and patterns are parallel to today’s pandemic times – are worth diving into. Ward fantastically develops a compelling story out of real events with The Empress and the English Doctor. Her talent for storytelling allows the reader to really absorb and appreciate how challenging yet significant this accomplishment was at the time.
I love history and I find medical history in particular very gripping (especially the discovery of vaccines), so I really enjoyed The Empress and the English Doctor: How Catherine the Great Defied a Deadly Virus. The author, Lucy Ward, is a journalist so it’s good bedtime reading, bringing home the story of the fight against the horrors of smallpox as well as focusing on Catherine the Great, who I’ve been wanting to know more about.