The Empress and the English Doctor

Pages: 352
Subject: History
Imprint: Oneworld

The Empress and the English Doctor

How Catherine the Great defied a deadly virus

Lucy Ward

The astonishing true story of how Catherine the Great joined forces with a Quaker doctor from Essex to spearhead a groundbreaking public health campaign
9780861542451 (7 Apr 2022)
RRP £20.00 / US$30.00

The Book

A killer virus…an all-powerful Empress…an encounter cloaked in secrecy…the astonishing true story.

Within living memory, smallpox was a dreaded disease. Over human history it has killed untold millions. In the eighteenth century, as epidemics swept Europe, the first rumours emerged of an effective treatment: a mysterious method called inoculation.

But a key problem remained: convincing people to accept the preventative remedy, the forerunner of vaccination. Arguments raged over risks and benefits, and public resistance ran high. As smallpox ravaged her empire and threatened her court, Catherine the Great took the momentous decision to summon the Quaker physician Thomas Dimsdale from Hertford to St Petersburg to carry out a secret mission that would transform both their lives. Lucy Ward expertly unveils the extraordinary story of Enlightenment ideals, female leadership and the fight to promote science over superstition.

Additional Information

Subject History
Pages 352
Imprint Oneworld


About the Author

Lucy Ward is a writer and former journalist for the Guardian and Independent. As a Westminster Lobby correspondent, she campaigned for greater women's representation. From 2010-12, she lived with her family in Moscow, renewing her interest in Russian history. After growing up in Manchester, she studied Early and Middle English at Balliol College, Oxford. She now lives in Essex.


‘A fascinating and beautifully told story about courageous vaccination pioneers.'

- Kate Bingham, Chair of the UK Vaccine Taskforce

‘Timely and engaging…the unlikely and remarkable story of how an English doctor, Thomas Dimsdale, and Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia, showed great personal courage and took serious personal risks to promote inoculation against smallpox using a method that had originated in Asia. The success of these early efforts led directly to the first vaccine by Jenner, and over the next two centuries saved millions of lives that would have been lost to many different diseases, culminating in the recent vaccines against Covid-19. A truly fascinating book that reads like a thriller.'

- Venki Ramakrishnan, former president of the Royal Society

‘It is hard to imagine a more timely or important book than The Empress and the English Doctor. Mirroring so many of the vaccination issues of our modern age, as well as those of bodily autonomy, feminism, and power, Lucy Ward's lively and in-depth exploration is a must-read.'

- Jojo Moyes

‘A rich and wonderfully urgent work of history which engagingly recounts one of the greatest moments in modern science and public health: a story of Enlightenment conviction, Court intrigue, Anglo-Russian relations, and timeless, personal bravery.  An expertly recounted eighteenth-century tale of political leadership and medical progress with obvious insights for today.'

- Tristram Hunt, director of the Victoria and Albert Museum

‘Packed with political intrigue and scientific insight, this is a fascinating narrative revealing how early inoculation pioneers overcame superstition, prejudice and misinformation. Move forward more than two centuries and the parallels with the current Covid-19 pandemic are incredible!'

- Jonathan Ball, professor of virology, University of Nottingham

‘This is a wonderful book. It tells the story of the greatest medical discovery before Pasteur, inoculation against smallpox, through the life of a Quaker doctor, Thomas Dimsdale, and his journey to Russia to treat Catherine the Great… It's a long time since I've read a history book as beautifully constructed as this - it's a remarkable achievement.'

- David Wootton, anniversary professor of history, University of York, and author of The Invention of Science

‘This is a remarkable and fascinating story of scientific discovery, breakthrough medicine and inspirational female leadership by Catherine the Great. The revelations in this book resonate with today's battle against Covid-19. Lucy Ward has undertaken brilliant detective work… This is a must-read book.'

- Sir Norman Lamb, former UK Health Minister

‘Timely… The author demonstrates beautifully how London has historically led on the science with first "inoculation” and then "vaccination” - indeed, longer than most people realise.'

- Professor Dame Sally Davies, former Chief Medical Officer for England

‘In this fluent and enlightening account of the fight to eradicate the terrifying scourge of smallpox, Ward deftly describes how an English Quaker doctor, Thomas Dimsdale, played a crucial role as a pioneer of the new technique of inoculation… The Empress and the English Doctor is a gripping read and all the more timely and extraordinary for having been written in the midst of the Covid pandemic.'

- Dr Helen Rappaport, bestselling author and historian specialising in late Imperial and Revolutionary Russia and Victorian Britain

‘A tale of multiple and intertwining themes - private and public health, public administration, and the politics of Empires… Although the book is about things that happened over 250 years ago, the hopes and fears of the people facing those difficult choices resonate with our own times.'

- Laurie Bristow, former UK ambassador to the Russian Federation