11 May 2014

18th century inoculation: Vaccinating the Pitt children

William Pitt (the Elder) to his wife Hester

In an undated letter from about 1766 (certainly before Pitt the Elder was raised to the peerage as the Earl of Chatham), he wrote to his wife Hester regarding plans to inoculate their children against smallpox. In the 18th century, smallpox was one of the greatest killers of the age, and this was particularly the case for children that succumbed to the illness. The Pitt family were progressive in that they had their children inoculated against this potentially deadly disease. 

Dated "Monday past one," William Pitt (later Lord Chatham) wrote to his wife to convey to her the recommended plans for inoculation. This seems to have included bleeding one of their daughters:

"Ranby [presumably a physician] has been with me, my sweet Love, to let us know that the Children must come to Town Wednesday, and be inoculated Thursday. Hetty [their eldest child, Hester] he proposes to bleed the same morning of the inoculation. Harriot [their third child] he thinks does not require bleeding. I send this notice without loss of a moment, in order to my angels giving such directions about beds &c. as she judges proper. The Rooms are aired. The Coach shall come down to morrow Evening. May this Line find my Life easy and the sweet Children well! Ever, my Angels, Most passionately loving Husband, W. Pitt."

Back of letter from Pitt to his wife Hester

Interestingly, only their two daughters are directly named. It isn't known, therefore, whether the three boys were inoculated at the same time, or at a later date. Pitt's concern and affection for his children is palpable, and it is clear that he relied very heavily on his wife's advice and guidance.


William Pitt (the Elder) to his wife Hester (undated but c. 1766). The National Archives. Chatham Papers: PRO 30/8/11. 

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