In 1880s letters in England, a frightened 14-year-old queen recounts her fear of measles

Measles would have been a grave danger to young children if the cold and flu vaccines in the 1780s were not on the market — and in the letters that recently sold in England, they appeared to be.

English newspapers reported that in July 1785, 14-year-old Catherine the Great of Russia was being hospitalized and receiving serological medicines in the instance of an outbreak of measles in the town of Alexandrowka. Doctors would discover that she had been coughing herself seriously ill.

In another letter from July 1785, Catherine wrote “I can’t bear the death of any person in the name of our holy sacrament” and wrote “there is good reason to fear measles if I may warn you.” It wasn’t clear whether she was expressing her own concern about the virus — or whether she was speaking to the “controlling” elements of her government — but the tone of the letter appears to be that a fear of measles was at least some kind of reaction to unvaccinated students at the home that she was occupying at the time. In a letter to her sister-in-law she wrote “I do not presume to mention about measles” because it was “totally unhelpful for the church to come out against it.”

In one letter, Catherine noted that though measles was definitely a “danger to those who have been too young to immunize,” children under 5 should not have to suffer. The young queen followed with another letter on the 20th of January 1786 where she wrote “this kind of sickness is very common. Soothe this child.” In a letter three days later she stated that she had been “having trouble of measles” and that a ward had been created at her home to treat those children who were suffering from an “isodial case of measles” and recommended that those afflicted with the disease should get the vaccine “now and there at any time.”

Nine-year-old Catherine’s protection was not as strong as that of the younger children: in two letters she expressed worry that three of her grandsons had been “getting quite curious with different inoculations.” In one of the letters, she detailed her visit to the pediatrician who reported back to her that her children were showing “faint symptoms” of the flu. She worried: “I cannot assure you at all what course of action will be entirely advisable if the influenza should continue to take root but I have been told by physicians that vaccination would prove useful in some cases.” In another letter she expressed dismay that one of her grandsons was ill, concerned that this infection could take hold of him and “remind her that she cannot rely on the prescription of physicians.” She was not clear how — or how well — the vaccine worked, but clearly thought it should be tried.

She was not in a position to dictate to her doctors or health workers, nor was she the only person with concerns about the disease. Mother England apparently wanted to see measles eradicated completely. In her seventh and last letter to her mother, on May 2, 1786, Catherine makes a specific reference to the need to make sure that measles is put to rest so it no longer threatens her children.

In a way, it’s a little morbid to wonder whether any hints in this letter and others dating from 1783 show that Catherine the Great went on to order an efficient vaccination and that in due course measles would be eliminated from her territory. But regardless of any speculation, it was a terrifying time for Catherine and her daughter-in-law Anastasia. In the years following Catherine’s death in 1785, she and Anastasia were targeted by anti-vaccination groups, including a group called the Health and Leisure League. Some reports have even said that without the vaccine they both lived to a ripe old age.

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