Catherine the Great Risked Her Life For Science

Smallpox is one of the worst killers in history. During the 18th century, it killed nearly 400,000 people every year – 60 million in all. Catherine the Great has been rightly written in medical history along with Edward Jenner, helping kickstart a method that created smallpox immunity.


Peter II and Peter III

In Europe, six reigning monarchs were sent to the grave by smallpox. In Russia, one of the victims was Peter the Great‘s grandson, 15-year-old Peter II who died of smallpox on his wedding day.

Another victim thirty years later was also named Peter. It was the future Emperor Peter III, the husband of future Catherine the Great. He suffered from a rather severe case of smallpox that left him with ugly scars and very little hair. The episode made the future Emperor quite hideous and destroyed his self-confidence.

Catherine herself was spared but she saw the horrors of smallpox first hand and probably decided to make efforts to spare her people from the kind of suffering she saw when ascending the throne.


In 1762, Catherine invited the greatest expert of the day, Dr. Thomas Dimsdale of Scotland to perform inoculation (variolation) on herself, her 14-year old son Paul and her court. She wanted to set a personal example to the people of Russia and demonstrate them that the procedure was safe.

Inoculation was a method of immunizing a person with material taken from smallpox (Variola) patients with mild infection. The method is not used anymore and has been replaced by vaccination that is an injection of a sample taken from a cow (Vacca) suffering from cowpox. The procedure was all but risk-free! Sometimes patients developed a severe case of smallpox and died after inoculation.

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My objective was, through my example, to save from death the multitude of my subjects who, not knowing the value of this technique, and frightened of it, were left in danger.

– Catherine the Great

Thomas Dimsdale

When Dr. Dimsdale arrived in Saint Petersburg together with his son Nathaniel Dimsdale in 1768, he tried to persuade the Empress to try first with some of the commoners. Dimsdale was not entirely sure if the smallpox of Russia would behave similarly to the one in Western Europe. The Empress stuck to her decision to be the first. So on 12 October 1768, she and her son Paul and several other members of the court were inoculated. Catherine developed a mild case of smallpox that was gone by the 28 October.

V0011075 Jenner and his two colleagues seeing off three anti-vaccinat
Edward Jenner, Thomas Dimsdale and George Rose seeing off three anti-vaccination opponents, the dead are littered at their feet. Coloured etching by Isaac Cruikshank (20 June 1808). Creative Commons license CC BY 4.0.

While Thomas Dimsdale was in Russia, there were relays of extra fast horses set ready for him by the orders of Catherine to guarantee him and his son a safe passage out of Russia in case something went wrong with the procedure. Everything went just fine and Thomas Dimsdale and his son were created barons and rewarded with £10,000.

Dimsdale’s work had a positive effect. He visited Russia again in 1781. By that time already over 20,000 Russians had been inoculated. By 1800, approximately 2 million inoculations were administered.




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