Letter From Russian Empress Catherine The Great On Importance Of Vaccination Under The Hammer

A 1787 letter written by Catherine the Great encouraging a vaccination programme is set to go under the hammer with British auctioneers McDougall’s.

The letter is part of a lot that includes a portrait of the Russian Empress that has been valued at between GBP 800,000 and GBP 1.2 million.

The famous Russian ruler was the first in the country to be vaccinated against smallpox after her future husband was disfigured during an epidemic of the disease.

She wrote the letter to explain how to organise a vaccination campaign on a large scale, warning that without vaccination, there would be “great harm especially among the common people”.

The letter, which the Russian Empress wrote on 20th April 1787, is set to be auctioned by McDougall’s auction house, which is based in London in the United Kingdom, along with a portrait of her by Imperial artist and portrait painter Dmitry Levitsky (1735-1822).

The letter of Catherine the Great, the last reigning Empress of Russia, about the importance of vaccination.
(MacDougall Auctions/Newsflash)

Catherine the Great (1729-1796), also known as Catherine II, wrote the letter, “about inoculating against smallpox in parts of present-day Ukraine”, during a trip to Crimea. It was addressed to Count Petr Alexandrovich Rumiantsev.

The letter is the first known document regarding Russia’s very first vaccination campaign, according to the auction house, which specialises in Russian art.

Newsflash spoke to William McDougall in an exclusive interview, and he said that the letter was “certainly topical at the moment” and that it was “very interesting that prominent leaders encouraging vaccination is nothing new”.

The letter reads, according to the auction house: “Count Piotr Aleksandrovich, among the other duties of the Welfare Boards in the Provinces entrusted to you, one of the most important should be the introduction of inoculation against smallpox, which, as we know, causes great harm, especially among the ordinary people.

“Such inoculation should be common everywhere, and it is now all the more convenient, since there are doctors or medical attendants in nearly all districts, and it does not call for huge expenditure.”

It also reportedly says: “To set an example of this, issue an order on the first occasion in each provincial town, to count the remaining superfluous conventual residences or the small monasteries that have been abolished, and build the minimum number of lodgings for the temporary stay of those who are unable to have this inoculation at home; money needed for this could be borrowed from town revenues.

“Provincial doctors can put this matter right, especially since now there are people sent from us who have a low salary against the regulations: so, since Dr Gund in Novgorod-Seversky can successfully carry out this inoculation, then add three hundred rubles to his regular salary from the remaining income from the former monastery estates. We remain, by the way, favourably disposed towards you.”

William MacDougall, director of the MacDougall Auction House, where a letter and a portrait of Catherine The Great will be auctioned.
(MacDougall Auctions/Newsflash)

It is signed “Catherine” and, according to the auction, house it bears “the Empress’s personal signature”.

McDougall said that it is “not only a unique, authentic document from that age, but also an extremely pertinent testimony to the statecraft and foresight shown by the great monarch”.

Catherine the Great ruled Russia from 1762 until her death in 1796. She expanded the country’s borders and was a fervent patron of the arts. The Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg started out as her own private collection.

According to the auction house, after successfully being vaccinated against smallpox, the Empress “proudly wrote to her ambassador plenipotentiary in Britain, Count Ivan Grigorievuch Chernyshev”, saying: “We now have only two topics of conversation: the first is the (Russo-Turkish) war, and the second is vaccination.

“Starting with me and my son, who is also recovering, there is no noble house in which there are not several vaccinated persons, and many regret that they had smallpox naturally and so cannot be fashionable. Count Grigory Grigorievich Orlov, Count Kirill Grigorievich Razumovsky and countless others have passed through Mr Dimsdale’s hands – and even renowned beauties… Here is what example means.”

The second part of the lot going up for auction is the portrait, which was “executed by one of Russia’s greatest 18th-century masters” and “may rightly be regarded as a highest quality work by Dmitry Levitsky in its own right”, the auction house said.

They added: “It is one of the examples of Catherine the Great iconography, which are extremely rare on the art market.”

Catherine MacDougall, co-director of the MacDougall Auction House, where a letter and a portrait of Catherine The Great will be auctioned.
(MacDougall Auctions/Newsflash)

The letter and the portrait, which the auction house said came from a “distinguished private collection” and had been authenticated by experts, will go on show as one lot during an exhibition in Moscow from 19th to 30th November.

The auction is set to take place on 1st December in London and online. The exact location of the auction will be made known to bidders who register for the event, with William MacDougall adding: “Bidders can attend by 24 hour advance appointment, and people may view by appointment.”

MacDougall’s was founded in 2004, with William MacDougall saying: “My wife, Catherine, is Russian, and I’m a quarter Russian. We both worked in the City for many years, and whenever we had a bit of money, we bought Russian Art. Consequently, we gained experience in financial markets and in auctions from the standpoint of collectors. Seventeen years ago we spotted a gap in the market, and decided to set up the auction house, at what turned out to be an excellent time.”


To find out more about the author, editor or agency that supplied this story – please click below.
Story By: Joseph GolderSub-EditorWilliam McGee, Agency: Newsflash

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