What about Ann Little Ingram?

While I will again emphasize that I am not a women’s historian, or a feminist historian, I must say that tracking down a historic woman has again proven extraordinarily difficult.

This time the story revolves around the Illustrated London News, a highly popular periodical in Victorian England. While not the only newspaper to use illustrations, the ILN was known for the quality and quantity of its images. This is why the character in my novel, Jo Harris, wants to be an artist for the ILN.

Knowing this was unlikely for a young-ish woman with no connections, I had her doing odd illustrating jobs in the first novel, for lesser periodicals like the Penny Illustrated Paper. But in the sequel, she has become more skilled, and is ready for the big time.

Wanting to create another character based on an actual person (I did this throughout the first mystery), I looked up who the proprietor was of the ILN in 1863.

Ann Ingram. Prounouns would be she/her, as they say. I confess I didn’t expect that. But apparently her husband, Herbert Ingram, founded the Illustrated London News, with a loan from Anne’s brother, who would also be publisher. But in 1860, Herbert took a holiday with his teenage eldest son, and they died in a massive boating accident on Lake Michigan aboard the cursed steamer Lady Elgin. So Ann took over the paper.

She is mentioned briefly in several sources, who essentially say she took over as editor only until her sons became old enough to do it. I think this is unlikely, since she was proprietor for eleven years from 1860-1871. The Waterloo Directory (the bible of Victorian periodical research) fails to list her name as editor. A Google Search, with either spelling of Ann or Anne, is unprofitable.  So I posted on the Facebook group for the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals, and the venerable Patrick Leary responded that she has indeed been neglected. He mentioned her in this history of the ILN written for Gale, and called her “a woman of considerable business acumen”.

What a possibly fascinating person. Leary has suggested that Isabel Bailey, who wrote a book on Herbert, might know something, having accessed their unpublished papers. If only I could find her.

But the point is, I shouldn’t have to. How can a woman who managed a paper which sold 250,000 copies for its special issues, not be more well-known? He certainly was — he became an MP, and there is a statue of him in the marketplace in old Boston. His life is chronicled. His picture is right here. –>

She bore him ten children, then ran his business, and her name isn’t even on his Wikipedia page. Was she photographed or engraved? Did she keep a diary? Was she written about in other people’s letters?

I sense yet another rabbit hole, dark with the story of another ignored woman.

Tearing down the past

History as a discipline is always subject to revision. In fact, historians have a name for history as it changes over time: historiography.

Let’s say a historian writes about the American founders during an era of oligarchy and great concentration of wealth, and his interpretation focuses on how the founders were all wealthy. That’s not a coincidence. Another writing at the end of second-wave feminism crafts a history of women in colonial New England. Also not a coincidence. History is a living discipline. It changes according to the needs of the time.

So now anti-racists are tearing down statues, and others are saying that’s tearing down history. I’ve already chimed in on taking down the statues of people who did both good and ill during their life. But doing so isn’t “tearing down history”. The removal of a monument is part of history, just as commissioning and building it was. The needs of society change.

The question is why, and to what end, destruction is necessary. There seems to be a huge amount of righteous pleasure involved in tearing things down, even more so than in putting them up. And at the moment, the focus on race is leading to everyone from Woodrow Wilson to Charles Dickens being attacked. Instead of creating better models for our present and future, which takes deep thought and compromise, people really like the idea of destroying something, some hypocrisy or ideal they see violated. It’s like a sport — they’re more interested in seeing the other team lose than in seeing theirs win.

And that’s where I get concerned, when the destructive tendency seems to cause more enthusiasm than the desire to build something better. Instead of creating poetry, songs, monuments, novels that reflect a new sensibility, it seems more satisfying to not only tear down the previous models, but to consider them inappropriate enough that they should be banned.

And when we start banning things, we’d better be careful. Not only will we lose Thomas Jefferson, who promulgated many of the energetic freedoms being used to react against previous wrongs, but we could lose our moorings. We could detach from our cultural foundation and start burning books. Doing it in the name of freedom will be the ultimate Orwellian irony.

So I’m cheering a little more quietly than some as the statues come down and names are changed, even while I applaud the names put in their place. I suspect it’s an easier way out than actually building a better world.

The Awakening What?

In doing some research for a possible next mystery novel, I am looking into the Pre-Raphaelites, one of the few sets of people that still has the power to surprise me. I came upon this article: Edouard Rod, “The English Pre-Raphaelites“, The Connoisseur (June 1888).

It references several paintings I have seen. In discussing Holman Hunt’s Christianity, Rod mentions his painting, The Awakening Conscience (1853). He notes:

According to the explanatory catalogue, “The Awakening of Conscience” represents a young woman led into evil by a shallow and frivolous man, and installed by him in a little English cottage; her conscience is awakened by the refrain of an old song, “Oft in the Stilly Night,” played by her lover upon the piano, and which recalls to her the time before her fall. If you look at the picture without reference to the catalogue, and endeavor to seize the moral, you will notice that painful thought is indicated by the tension of the features; the young woman is depicted as leaning back in a hopeless attitude against the easy-chair in which she is seated; you will also infer from the indifferent and smiling air of the man, whose fingers are wandering over the keys, that her disturbed feeling is not produced by the simple music; you will still further see that the man is thoroughly commonplace, while the woman is of finer fibre, but nothing more.

That’s funny, I didn’t remember her being seated, but rather him being seated and her rising. And when I saw it in person I questioned the whole idea of her entering some stage of repentance anyway. So I thought I’d have another look:

OK, so maybe he had been playing the piano, but he certainly isn’t now, and she is not lounging hopelessly in the easy chair — he is, like I remembered, and she seems to be rising from sitting on his lap. And is that a cottage? It looks like an urban flat to me, but what do I know? Anyway, his fingers are not wandering over the keys, but resting on them.

Sometimes, this sort of incongruity happens because there were different versions of the painting. But I looked and there doesn’t seem to be another one. Had Rod really not seen the work? Or did he see a different scene than was painted? The rest of the article was good, but marred for me by this inaccuracy.

One does hope, of course, that one can at least trust the facts in a secondary source, if not the interpretation. If I lived in pre-internet times, I wouldn’t have been able to look and check the work itself without going to a library. But here I go blithely sending students to J-STOR, telling them to do their research. Better check our facts, even in 1888.

On Victorian female painters

I have been notoriously lax in my advancement of the feminist cause. I just assume that women were far more active historically than they have been portrayed. Those who control the media control the message. But at the same time I do notice when women have important public roles to play, and in writing fiction I have made sure that my Victorian females have a great deal of agency.

That’s not wishful thinking. It’s simply that the ordinary academic practice of history tends to believe its sources, without looking at all of them. That’s human. So I just want to say up front, it takes quite a bit to get my feminist hackles up. I’m a humanist.

But as I look into the Pre-Raphaelites, I have found myself getting annoyed with the focus on the men. Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Millais — there are women who took their names, but they are seen as muses alone. No one says “Rossetti” and means Christina, Dante Gabriel’s highly published and respected poet sister. No one says Millais and means Lady Millais, or “Burne-Jones” and means Georgina, an accomplished artist, or “Morris” and means Jane, a talented embroiderer. Why, when most of them published or exhibited their own work? I’m not even sure the men themselves saw them as sidelines — there is much evidence of respect and collaboration. And yet in most of the books, the men’s work is emphasized, and the women’s downgraded. Most of the explorations of the women’s work are recent, like Jan Marsh’s Pre-Raphaelite Sisters, or the National Portrait Gallery exhibit.

For inspiration and pandemic-driven amusement, I’ve been looking at the portrayal of the Pre-Raphaelites in cinema and television, so I’m watching Desperate Romantics. It was made in 2009, not exactly a bad time for feminism. But even there, little mention is made of anything the women themselves created or exhibited. I realize it’s set early (1850s), but the writer didn’t even imbue them with any ambition.

Jane Morris embroidery

by Georgiana Burne-Jones

Clerk Saunders, by Elizabeth Siddall

I thought perhaps I’d look into their lives a bit, see whether they would make good characters in my book, or whether the tale I’ll tell could be through their eyes, instead of the men’s. I don’t know much about the art history of this period, so I’m investigating. My book is set in 1863, so I thought I’d see what the Royal Academy of Arts was doing then. I found The Royal Summer Exhibition: A Chronicle, a great resource that for 1863 discussed several of the key works including Millais, comparing his dark work in The Eve of St Anges to the lightness of a painting by Edward Matthew Ward. And then I saw in the Context section:

For some critics, Henrietta Ward’s picture of Mary Queen of Scots surpassed her husband’s efforts, and the Mutrie sisters were described as “still supreme among flower-painters”.

Who’s Henrietta Ward? I tried to search her by name and “Mary Queen of Scots”. I found an engraving from the Illustrated London News of it, but not the painting. So then I found the Royal Academy of Arts catalogue for that exhibition on HathiTrust. I wondered whether she’d be listed like the male painters, as “H. Ward”. I found the work, and her name as “Mrs. E. M. Ward”, and she had half a dozen works in the exhibition. I looked her up at the NPG, but there’s not a lot there. I found a review in the Athaeneum, which said:

They used “Mrs.” but referred to the artist as a male. How strange.

I thought I’d pick at random another female, since they are so clever indicated with “Miss” and “Mrs.” Item 571, Always welcome, by Mrs. J. F. Pasmore. Started searching on Google. “Mrs. J. F. Passmore painting 1863”. Very frustrating. I had spelled the name wrong. Then I stumbled on this at an antiques dealer site:

And here’s the description:

Middle initial and last name spelling confusion aside, she “also exhibited paintings”? Hers is in the Royal Academy exhibition, but I can’t find a copy of Always welcome online (there are plenty of paintings around by John F., mostly for sale). And this website attributes the above painting to him anyway, not her. So now I don’t know what to think. Maybe this is just a picture of her.

I don’t like to class everyone together: all women, all men. Some women had extraordinary power, both in the home and out of it. Others were taken advantage of. This sort of problem makes one wonder whether it’s the sources or the perception. Looking at the sources, I find more and more evidence of women’s agency. But finding those sources seems inordinately difficult.



Research and wombats

Occasionally I write a post about some research I’m doing, to document or demonstrate the historical process. Or just to express the madness of historical research. Probably the latter, in this case.

Today I am working on my second mystery novel, and if you know me it won’t surprise you that I became enamored of finding One Particular Thing. In this case, it was the exact date in 1863 on which newly acquired wombats were available to view at the Regent’s Park Zoo in London.

The idea began with an article from Public Domain Review, detailing Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s wombat fascination. I was wondering whether I could have a scene where Rossetti drags his PræRaphaelite friends to the zoo to see the wombats and, if so, when that would be. According to the article:

In this period a number of new wombats arrived at the Regent’s Park Zoo: a rare, hairy-nosed wombat on July 24, 1862, and two common wombats despatched from the Melbourne Zoo on March 18, 1863.

The novel will be set in 1863, so I was interested in the two common wombats. Well, “despatched from” does not mean “arrived at”. So I wanted to find out when they arrived.

drawn at the zoo by Christina Rossetti

Now here’s where search terms become terribly important, and the lack of creativity in this regard most obvious. I used “regents park zoo wombats 1863”.

Since the Public Domain Review is, naturally, in the public domain, I mostly found the exact same phrase above on a bunch of web pages. So I tried searching for a book about the history of the London Zoo, both on Google Books and Amazon. I did find a book, for $25 with no preview. No can do, and no way to go to a library.

I began searching for records. Surely the Zoo has records. Eventually I found the Proceedings of the Zoological Society at Google Books, but of course they had every possible year but 1863. When this happens, I go immediately to HathiTrust.

And there I found it, after the usual search involving several identical options that actually aren’t identical records, the Proceedings for 1863, searching the word “wombat”.


March 18, 1863. So it turns out the article in the Public Domain Review (and all the items that plagiarized it) is wrong. The wombats weren’t despatched then; they arrived. And there were three wombats, one Common, one Hairy-nosed, and one Black. Another Common wombat did arrive, but on June 6. I also looked up the Acclimatization Society. Apparently they’re the ones responsible for introducing plagues of rabbits into Australia, and pesky sparrows that ate the fruit crop. Their work would eventually found the Melbourne Zoo, but it didn’t exist in 1863, so that’s wrong too.

So as yet I have no plot, no outline, and no idea where my story is going. I do, however, have wombats.


We who work among the (long) dead

Historians, when you meet them, often have an other-wordly air about them. They’re not much fun at parties, as they appear to be thinking about things other than what they’re doing. Few move through the world with grace. There are exceptions, of course. But friendships are made now in the awareness that most of the interesting people have already passed through.

Historians live among the dead. Not just the personal dead that everyone lives among, but a much larger community. There are, as I’ve said before, networks of dead people. All of us are inheritors of the knowledge of the past. Its errors and victories are ours. So many different narratives of the past, and so much historical evidence, is now so easily available to us. The historian’s confusion is in wondering why everyone doesn’t realize this, why people do not bother to access the wisdom that is already there.

I discovered a wonderful poem recently, one I can’t believe I didn’t know, by Romantic poet Robert Southey.

My days among the Dead are past;
    Around me I behold,
Where’er these casual eyes are cast,
    The mighty minds of old;
My never-failing friends are they,
With whom I converse day by day.
With them I take delight in weal,
    And seek relief in woe;
And while I understand and feel
    How much to them I owe,
My cheeks have often been bedew’d
With tears of thoughtful gratitude.
My thoughts are with the Dead, with them
    I live in long-past years,
Their virtues love, their faults condemn,
    Partake their hopes and fears,
And from their lessons seek and find
Instruction with an humble mind.
My hopes are with the Dead, anon
    My place with them will be,
And I with them shall travel on
    Through all Futurity;
Yet leaving here a name, I trust,
That will not perish in the dust.

I was recently turned down, for the third time, for a grant by the National Endowment of the Humanities. I am still working unfunded on my very large research project on the young H. G. Wells. None of the three reviewers liked my proposal for editing and reprinting his early works on science education. The publisher who had initially indicated interest in the book has also declined for now.

Rejection hurts, of course, but what grieves me is that one of the NEH reviewers said my work was “antiquarian”. Antiquarians are lay people fascinated with something particular in the past. They are not trained historians. (Despite lacking the laurel of a PhD, I am a trained historian. My MA included a dissertation-length thesis under supervision, and took three years.)

Ettore Forti (b. 1893), The Antiquarian

Antiquarians do not live among the dead — they scour the past like an antique shop for the things that interest them. They may select one “friend” from history, but do not see the larger scope of humanity embedded within it. They eschew frameworks of understanding, and focus on the material. Historians study the networks.

In times of strife, it’s the historians who know we’ve been here before. Sometimes the journalists ask them about it. Looking for that second spike? It’s in the 1918-19 flu epidemic, in the fall. Wondering how people can march in the streets when there’s a pandemic going on? Ask the suffragettes in that same flu epidemic, the soldiers in the Anglo-Dutch war that took place during the 1666 plague in London, or the merchant families fighting each other in the street (and the promulgators of the Hundred Years War) during the 1347-48 Black Death. War, protest, tyranny — these flourish in times of confusion and disaster.

All these dead people provide perspective. Indeed, it becomes their purpose, the reason we seek them. So let’s be sure to listen, even if our own names will perish in the dust.

What the Dickens

Funny the things that happen when you’re a historian just trying to read a book, and the ways in which being a historian can get in the way of a good read.

I recently joined the Victorians! forum on Goodreads. People there read Victorian-era books. I’ve read some of those myself, including a few by Charles Dickens. I’ve read The Old Curiosity Shop (which someone spoiled for me, thinking everyone knows the ending), A Christmas Carol (of course), and Hard Times (ok, so I listened to the audiobook). The rest await me, eight or so volumes on the shelf. I figured Oliver Twist would be next.

Then I saw that the Victorian group would be reading Nicholas Nickleby. I’m not much of a joiner, but I thought it might be fun. I’ve never read with a group, never been in a book group or anything. The closest I get is reading the “book group questions” at the back of  novels.

But I didn’t have a copy of Nicholas Nickleby. I could have downloaded it from Internet Archive, but I don’t like reading things on a screen. Ironic, isn’t it? Backlit screens are for work, but reading for pleasure is different. I want a book in my hand, turning its pages, absorbing its history.

My ultimate site for second-hand books is abebooks.com. But I’m very choosy, because to me books are historical objects. My first preference is for a book published during the author’s lifetime, so “publication date ascending” is my go-to sort. Ending 1870, when he died. Whoa! the prices! How could Dickens be fetching such prices? OK, maybe not 1870. . . But even with an edition from 1920, we’re talking some money.

I knew Mr. Dickens was not getting a cut from my purchase, but I’m not a huge fan of him as a person, despite Simon Callow’s brilliant portrayal in Dr Who. As a historian, I try very hard to separate the creator from his creation. Where would I be with Rousseau if I cared about how he gave up his own children to foundling hospitals? Or if I ignored the brilliance of Thomas Jefferson because I was busy judging how he lived? People are not their ideas. We are all flawed. Good ideas survive long past the person’s lifetime.

Dickens is somewhat different because I went to his house. Not while he was there, of course, but several years ago. It’s a shrine to him.  I found this bizarre, because it was really her house. His wife, Catherine. She raised his ten (!) children. She wrote the best-selling menu book What Shall We Have for Dinner? Since 2016, the museum has made a huge effort to include her in the house’s story. The problem is that Mr. Dickens, who was having an affair with young actress Ellen Ternan, didn’t want his wife anymore. After she discovered the affair in 1858, he turned the situation on her, separated from her, and dissed her all over London. He even tried to get her committed to an asylum. (I’ve begun reading Lillian Nayder’s 2011 biography rehabilitating her reputation. I feel I must.)

I’ve learned that you cannot be a Victorianist without enjoying, or even reveling in, Charles Dickens. Certainly I admire his detailed portrayal of the era, the wonderful characterizations, the turns of phrase that make you chuckle aloud. He wrote so fast, and so much, that I know I haven’t even scratched the surface of his talent. But the hagiographic approach to him annoys me anyway.

So I clicked past the volume of Nicholas Nickleby that said “Works by Charles Dickens” on the spine, because it was part of a collection. I scrolled beyond the $1,000 matched sets of his work. I searched for the small 8vo versions I prefer, but there aren’t any because the novel is too long. I finally found one I liked and ordered it.

I do not hold it against Dickens that I spent so much time looking for a book I hadn’t wanted to read, by an author I personally dislike, just to join a discussion with a group I do not know. It’s just another case of a historian making things more complicated than they need to be.

At a cost to the economy, 1862

Although it was not as beloved as the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition, the Great Exhibition of 1862 in London was extraordinary, as I noted in a previous post.

In addition to celebrating industrial and artistic achievement, the Exhibition also hosted meetings of several international groups. This included the International Congress of Charities, Correction and Philanthropy. On June 13, the speaker was Sarah Parker Remond.

A free person of color born in Massachusetts, Remond was anti-slavery from an early age. It is reputed that she made her first speech against the practice when she was 16. Her parents were successful business people. They were active in anti-slavery societies, and made sure their children got a good education, despite the lack of good schools for non-white children.

Sarah was already known as a lecturer for the American Anti-Slavery Society (founded by William Lloyd Garrison) before she was asked to go to London in 1858. Her intention was to get a better education, and she enrolled at the Bedford College for Women while continuing to lecture. While she was there, the American Civil War began.

Her speech at the Exhibition in 1862 emphasized support for emancipation, and by implication the Union blockade against the Confederacy. Britain had declared itself neutral in the conflict, and British ships continued to bring in products to northern ports. She pointed out how the British cotton industry used the products of slaves, although Britain itself had outlawed slavery in 1824. The British Parliament had further passed the Slavery Trade Act of 1873 and were actively involved in confiscating slave ships, but were continuing to benefit from the manufacture of cotton grown by slaves in America. She said,

Let no diplomacy of statesmen, no intimidation of slaveholders, no scarcity of cotton, no fear of slave insurrections, prevent the people of Great Britain from maintaining their position as the friend of the oppressed negro, which they deservedly occupied previous to the disastrous civil war.

This was despite the fact that she recognized that:

Thousands among the commercial, manufacturing, and working classes, on both sides of the Atlantic, are dependent upon cotton for all material prosperity. . .

As the result of the efforts of Remond and others like her, Britain respected the Union blockade of the Southern states. But the result of the decline in raw cotton importation was mill closures and starvation in places like Lancashire. There it’s become known as the Lancashire Cotton Famine.

In 1862, as now, the problem was not just that economic strain had thrown people out of work. It was that there was not enough of a social safety net to provide for them when they lost their jobs. The British government engaged in some compensation experiments, including minor funds distributed directly (similar to today’s stimulus checks), but it was minimal and in many cases never reached the people who needed it.  The new Poor Laws had funded workhouses rather than “outdoor” relief to help people at home. Ultimately, some relief occurred when the government provided money to local councils, who then created new opportunities for employment in public works. But that wasn’t until 1864. Before that any efforts were supported primarily by private charity (similar to today’s GoFundMe), partly out of a suspicion of increased government activity*.

In 1862 the issue was the moral culpability involved in profiting from slave labor. Now it is the moral culpability of forcing workers into plague conditions. Jobs that take place indoors have the greatest risk of infection, while those outdoors have the least.  Safer jobs could include massive infrastructure repair on America’s roads, bridges, and parks. Designs could be implemented to move commercial, educational, and political enterprises into better ventilated conditions.

Perhaps public works, and a bit of advice from Miss Nightingale (see previous post), might be an answer beyond 1864.



* Hall, Rosalind. “A Poor Cotton Weyver: Poverty and the Cotton Famine in Clitheroe.” Social History 28, no. 2 (2003): 233.

Armchair historian does London Bridge

Historians sometimes reinvent themselves. Or maybe it’s better to say that historians who are very famous, or not famous at all, sometimes reinvent themselves. If you’re very famous (like Simon Schama) you can do whatever you like. If  you’re basically unknown (like me) you can also do whatever you like. But if you’re an acknowledged expert about One Big Thing, I suspect you can’t do anything else.

I’ve been working for a few years on making Victorian England my new specialty, and I’m also writing a novel that takes place in 1862. To find good resources and just enjoy the era, I’ve joined some Victorian-focused Facebook groups. People post old photos:

These are London Bridge in 1890, the top one facing north, the other facing south. And oh, the traffic! I’ve read that the bridges were often jammed in the 1860s, and it looks like by 1890 they weren’t any better. Can’t you just imagine yourself trying to cross the street?

Then someone on Facebook asked whether the stairway was still there:


Let’s go look! (And get a load of all the “temporarily closed” on Google. Might want to take some screenshots — this will all be history too, remember).



So I “drop down” my little G droid* and go look.



Hmmm… looks like maybe the top of a stairway? I’d better drop down by the river bank for closer inspection.


A ramp! Much nicer than stairs for lots of people. Plus you don’t have to go out past the church and turn left to get onto the bridge.

The ease of doing this sort of thing amazes me. An armchair traveler in the 19th century could sit at home and read books to go to wonderful places all over the world. I can drop down my G droid anywhere and walk around (well, click around).

I can’t go to England this year, but I can do this. The Google Map images are relatively recent. I can walk down streets. I can look up old maps and then go see what’s different (I do that all the time for research). I can even go to webcams like this one and see places in real time. I can start up Google Earth and see buildings in three dimensions.

All of which beats relying on H. Rider Haggard for my view of the world. But I would like a wingback chair, please.


*I know the droid is called “Pegman”, but why should it be a man? I’m a lot of things, but I’m not a man.

Is it better to be a milkmaid?

In the early 18th century, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu would discover the inoculation process for smallpox while she was living in Turkey. She had lost a brother to the disease, and barely survived it herself. Smallpox in the 18th century was particularly virulent; the CDC says it had an average a 30% death rate for those who got it. The inoculation was done using actual scabs from people who had smallpox, inserting it under the skin through a cut. Lady Montagu had her son inoculated while in Turkey, and her daughter in England when she returned in 1721. She then campaigned to popularize the method in Europe.

But Edward Jenner gets all the glory, even today, because he developed a vaccine to replace the inoculation. Inoculation is an old idea — you take some likely material from a living victim of the disease, and put it in a person who hasn’t had it (similar to the convalescent plasma being tried today). But there is always a danger of actually giving the healthy person the disease. A vaccine uses a more benign substance to achieve the same immunity.

I was taught in college that the discovery of the smallpox vaccine came out of the realization that milkmaids didn’t get smallpox. This was apparently because in leaning their cheek on the cow while milking, they acquired cowpox, a very mild disease. The cowpox antibodies protected them from smallpox.

There is a wonderful mythology around Edward Jenner and his 1796 vaccine. It’s based on the story of a milkmaid he met when he was a boy, bragging about her lovely skin that would never be scarred by the pox.  Rather like the story of George Washington and the cherry tree, it was created by a later biographer. The real story is more ordinary. Nevertheless, milkmaids didn’t get smallpox.

I learned today that an old vaccine for tuberculosis may have some value in helping with the current virus. The New York Times article says:

The B.C.G. vaccine has an unusual history. It was inspired in the 1800s by the observation that milkmaids did not develop tuberculosis.

The active ingredient of the Bacillus Calmette-Guerin vaccine is Mycobacterium bovis, which was isolated from a cow in 1908. It was made into a proven vaccine by 1911, and is today used in areas with high tuberculosis danger.

Unlike the Jenner/smallpox tale, the story of BCG inspiration and milkmaids is harder to track down. I can find nothing in a verifiable source, other than popular/journalistic websites copying each other’s phrasing, to confirm the background of the discovery.  Closest I could get was a 2008 Russian article saying that milkmaids and others close to cattle could carry a latent infection that gives a false positive for a tuberculin skin test. I couldn’t find anything even saying that milkmaids didn’t get tuberculosis. Is this a case of people just mistaking one apocryphal tale for another?

But we know that Mycobacterium bovis is to Mycobacterium tuberculosis as cowpox is to smallpox — a similar, less deadly disease that protects against a more virulent one. The Lancet warns that it might not be effective against the current virus, and there might not be enough available, but it has helped people with similar respiratory diseases recover faster.

I’d still like to think that milkmaids would be safer.