Diversity First manager to advocate vaccine was a woman: Empress Catherine the Great

Empress Catherine II of Russia, considered one of the greatest monarchs of her time (Internet/Reproduction)

Priscilla Peixoto – Cenarium Magazine

MANAUS – Educated, cultured, popular supporter and promoter of science and arts, this is how Catherine the Great was (1729-1796). The first woman among the European courts and the first person in Russia to undergo an inoculation (the initial version of vaccination) to be immunized against smallpox, which ravaged the country in the 18th century. The act of the contemporary monarch of the illuminism – making rational scientific thought predominant – who set herself as an example and trusted in the efficacy of science for the good of her subjects, made her one of the main symbols in the fight against the evil that spread around the world and killed millions of people.

According to the journalist and political scientist Liege Albuquerque, Catarina’s actions are in line with Max Weber’s definitions, who talks about charismatic leaders who are prone to good or evil. For the scientist, Brazil currently witnesses several episodes of denialism, in Covid-19 times, and Catarina, unlike the current major leader of the country, took it upon herself, considering it a ‘barbarism’ to die from the disease in the 18th century.

“Charismatic leadership has always existed for good and for evil, and this Max Weber explains. In the case of despot, which I even know the history, it was used for good. She was an excellent leader and a great woman influencing and directing her people towards the paths of advancement, extremely important for a nation”, states Liege.

Painting of Catherine the Great (Reproduction/Dmitry Levitzky)

The political scientist compares Catherine’s positive conduct with Brazil’s current management. In contrast to the Russian despot, the greatest Brazilian leadership figure influences society in a negative way when the subject is the encouragement of science and awareness that in times of pandemics, immunization is essential, as the empress believed in the 18th century.

“It is obvious that if Bolsonaro used his influence and charismatic leadership in favor of science and the population, we would have a higher rate of vaccinated people in this country and we would not witness so many negative attitudes, which even interferes with Brazil’s image before the world. It’s not healthy”, says the professional.

Diffusion of knowledge

According to social scientist and Federal University of Amazonas (Ufam) professor Gilson Gil, when Catarina, the Great, advocated vaccination against infectious diseases, especially smallpox, she became one of the main central figures in the dissemination of knowledge and criticism of prejudices and obscurantism.

He points out that the 18th century was one of the lights, science, and reason. In this context, great leaders, philosophers, politicians, and military men were supporters of these enlightened ideals. It was the “enlightened despotism”, even though kings who were not republicans were supporters of science and technical advances. Like political scientist Liege Albuquerque, the social scientist warns of denialism in current times.

“Today, we see how obscurantism has resurged, in the form of denialism and conspiracy theories, which speak of implanted chips, new order, globalism, and other contemporary urban legends. Fighting such obscurantism, favoring critical and reflective actions that respect freedom, life, and the search for a more fraternal world, as our illuminist forefathers did, is a political and ethical priority for our society”, he points out.

Letter found

In November 2021, a letter written by Catherine, dated April 20, 1787, (the time when the first inoculation/vaccination procedures against smallpox came into being) was on display in the Moscow Gallery throughout the month. The correspondence, until then in the possession of an unidentified collector, further proved how visionary Catherine was.

In the document, addressed to Count Pyotr Rumiantsev, of a province where Ukraine is situated today, the Russian empress asks that the entire population of the region be immunized against smallpox, the plague of the time. “One of the most important tasks must be the introduction of vaccination against smallpox, which, as we know, causes great harm to the population at large”, reads an excerpt from the empress’ letter to the count.

In another separate deed addressed to the Prussian king Frederick the Great, it is also possible to find passages where Catherine speaks of self-inoculation to serve as a greater example and incentive to the people in view of the effectiveness of the immunizer.

“How could I introduce vaccination against smallpox without setting a personal example?” (…) Should I remain in real danger, along with thousands of people, throughout my life, or should I prefer a minor danger, very brief, and thus save many people? By choosing the latter, I was selecting the best course”, confessed the despot.

Photo of the letter written by Catherine II stressing the importance of the vaccine (Reproduction/ Gavriil Grigorov/TASS/Getty Images)

Historical analysis

In the analysis of historian Adriano Magalhães Tenório, the letter is a historical source that portrays a valuable time with a significant message, especially in times of pandemic. For him, by pointing out the innovation of the discovery of inoculation, the document reveals the contradictions that men live throughout time.

“When we understand, as historians, that our function is to investigate the past based on questions and/or facts of the present, we look at a document like this, from the 18th century, and question the reasons why we still live in times where science is denied”, he comments.

When looking at Catherine’s legacy, the historian affirms that the monarch occupies a space beyond the academy and historical research and becomes a symbol of aspiration for those who long for changes in various corners of the world and, especially, in Brazil.

“We look at the past from the perspective of present-day issues. It is interesting to note that in times like these of denial of science, advancement of authoritarianism, and attacks on minorities – LGBTQIA+, blacks, and women, where the head of state denies science, spreads false news, and does not take responsibility for the impressive death toll from Covid-19, to see a woman who went down in history as one of the most important monarchs in Russian history, who took responsibility and set an example for her people, including by testing a new technique that was little known until then, thus saving lives, is undoubtedly what many Brazilians would like at this moment”, considers the historian.

The Inoculation Process

According to historical accounts, to test the effectiveness, on October 12, 1768, a doctor named Thomas Dimsdale made a cut in each of Catherine’s arms and injected material extracted from the nearly dried wounds/pus of a peasant, named Alexander Markov.

Days later, the empress presented a moderate picture of pustules all over her body, but they disappeared within a week. After the successful procedure, Dimsdale was announced as a ‘baron of the Russian Empire,’ with a lifetime pension of 500 pounds per year, in addition, the boy Alexander was given a title of nobility.

“My aim was, by my example, to save from death my many subjects who, not knowing the value of this technique, frightened, were in danger,” the sovereign declared in a speech to the Senate.

In November of the same year, more than 100 nobles of St. Petersburg followed the empress’ example and also underwent the procedure. Vaccination posts’ were set up in various parts of the empire. Historical records show that by the year 1780, on average 20,000 people had been vaccinated, and by the year 1800 more than 2 million had been immunized.

Thomas Dimsdale, doctor who inoculated Catherine (Reproduction/ Internet)

A Brief History

Before she became Catherine II or Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia, born in Stettin, Prussia, north of present-day Poland, on May 2, 1729, her name was Sophie Friederike Auguste, Princess of Anhalt-Zerbst, daughter of Christian Augustus, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst, and Duchess Joan Elizabeth of Holstein-Gottorp.

At 15, she went to Moscow and readapted her life. She learned another language, studied, and renamed herself Orthodox, receiving the name ‘Yekaterina Alekseievna’. In 1745, she married the heir to the throne of Russia, named Peter III, and gave birth to two children, the future Tsar Paul I and the Grand Duchess Anne Petrovna, who died in infancy.

Upon the death of Empress Elizabeth of Russia, Peter III’s aunt, had been raised as a son, since Elizabeth, widow of Peter the Great, had no heirs. Peter III ascended the throne on January 5, 1762 as Tsar Peter III. He soon allied himself with Frederick II of Prussia.

Fearing the alliance, his wife Catherine joined the generals in dislodging Peter III and handing over power to her. A few days later, Peter III was assassinated. From then on, she becomes empress of Russia, as Catherine II. Known to be an enlightened leader, the monarch kept in touch with some of the notable philosophers of the time, such as the frenchmen Voltaire and Diderot, who go down in history for being thinkers and disseminators of the Illuminism, as well as being among those responsible for the encyclopedia.

Catherine II and Peter III (Reproduction/ Internet)

Besides the remarkable history connected with the fight against smallpox and of encouraging science, Catherine financed wars on several frontiers. While fighting against Poland, she moved armies against the Turkish people in wars that lasted almost 20 years. On that occasion, Turkey ceded to Russia the northern coast of the Black Sea and the Crimean peninsula.

Another achievement of the empress was in 1785, when Catherine promulgated the ‘Nobility Charter’, abolishing taxes on the nobles (instituted in 1720 by Peter the Great). The monarch’s reign lasted approximately 36 years. On November 17, 1796, the Great died in Tsarkoie Selo, near St. Petersburg.

In the book ‘Catherine the Great: portrait of a woman’, released in 2012, by Rocco publishing house, author Robert K. Misse defines the empress as a consolidator of the actions initiated by Peter the Great. “She was a magisterial figure in the age of monarchy, the only one who equaled her on a European throne was Elizabeth I of England. In Russian history, she and Peter the Great stood out for their ability and achievements compared to 14 other tsars and empresses in the 330 years of the Romanov dynasty”, says an excerpt from the book.

Cases of Smallpox

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) 40 years ago, more precisely on May 8, 1980, smallpox was declared eradicated worldwide. The disease is, to date, the only disease that affects humans to have been eradicated globally.

It is estimated that in the 20th century alone the virus killed almost 300 million people. The disease circulated and victimized the world population for at least three thousand years.

“You have to be stupid, ignorant and wicked not to call responsibility upon yourself and take an initiative to get a cure for a disease that is killing thousands of people in your nation”, Catherine the Great.


For those who wish to learn more about the story of Catherine the Great, Prime Video has available in its catalog two seasons of the production entitled ‘The Great’.

Poster for the series (Reproduction/Prime Video)
The moment in which Catherine, played by Elle Fanning, commits self-inoculation (Play/Prime Video)
A contemporary of the illuminism, the monarch defended religious freedom and encouraged science (Reproduction/Prime Video)