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Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Explained: Who are the women from Mysore in Thomas Hickey’s 19th century painting?

A 19th century portrait of three women from Mysore has been going viral as "one of the most important scientific pictures in the history of medicine in India". Who are they, and what did the portrait depict?

Written by Vandana Kalra , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: June 8, 2021 10:01:08 am
Women from the Wadiyar dynasty (Source: Sotheby's)

Even as India tries to meet its Covid-19 vaccine demand and struggles due to a shortage of jabs, a 19th century portrait of three women from Mysore has been going viral as “one of the most important scientific pictures in the history of medicine in India”.

With women from the Wadiyar dynasty as its protagonists, the canvas was commissioned to promote participation in the smallpox vaccination programme.

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Who are the three women?

Believed to be painted in 1805 by Irish-born artist Thomas Hickey, the oil on canvas was initially thought to be portraits of “dancing girls or courtesans”. In the 1990s, Dr Nigel Chancellor, historian at Cambridge University, pointed out that the painting was of historic significance and depicted one of the first vaccine drives in India, with bejewelled women from the Wadiyar dynasty posing for Hickey.

The youngest woman, on the right, has been identified as Devajammani, the younger queen of King Krishnaraja Wadiyar III. She has her hand on her left arm, suggesting she has been vaccinated against smallpox, which had led to numerous deaths in India over the years. On the left, meanwhile, is the older queen, who has pigmentation around her mouth, which could possibly be a sign of surviving smallpox, probably through variolation, which would often lead to a mild infection that resulted in lasting immunity.

According to a catalogue note that accompanied the canvas’s 2007 sale at Sotheby’s, the woman in the middle is one of the king’s sisters.

How and when did the smallpox vaccine reach India?

The smallpox vaccine, discovered by Edward Jenner in 1796, was the first successful vaccine to be developed. On June 14, 1802, Anna Dusthall, an Anglo-Indian toddler, was the first person in India to be successfully vaccinated against the virus that relied on the cowpox virus, “a mild cousin of smallpox” to trigger immunity. The “vaccine vesicle” that came on the arm of the receiver was a source of lymphatic fluid or pus that would act as a vaccine, leading to an arm-to-arm immunisation chain. The vaccine subsequently travelled to different parts of India, including Hyderabad, Cochin, Madras and Mysore.

How the British inoculated India, and the role played by the canvas

While the lymph was at times reportedly dried and sealed between glass plates to be transported, it often did not survive long journeys, due to which the British had to primarily rely on a human chain. There was also opposition from the domestic population on the introduction of the cowpox virus and also because some believed the goddess of smallpox would be angered by the vaccination.

With Tipu Sultan defeated in Mysore, and the reinstatement of the Wadiyars, the East India Company was trying to strengthen its position in South India and protect the expat population from an epidemic, making vaccination essential. Queen Lakshmi Ammanni, who had lost her husband to smallpox, supported their cause and wanted to vaccine her population against the deadly virus. The painting was supposed to encourage participation in the vaccination drive.

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