Marie Antoinette and the Speckled Monster

In the eighteenth century, smallpox (also called The Red Death or The Speckled Monster) was an indiscriminate master of the human race, wreaking havoc on the young and old, the poor and the wealthy. 

Marie Antoinette caught a mild case of smallpox when she was two years old.  The illness did leave her moderately scarred but helped her build a resistance to the disease.

The Speckled Monster would stalk Marie Antoinette throughout her life. 

In 1761, Marie Antoinette's brother, Charles Joseph caught smallpox.  In 1762, Marie Antoinette's sister, Maria Johanna, contracted the disease.  They would both survive.

Marie Antoinette's sister-in-law died of smallpox and was buried in a crypt in Vienna.  Shortly after the internment, Marie Antoinette's mother decided to visit the crypt and insisted her older daughter, Archduchess Josepha, come along to pay her respects.  A few days later, the pretty, petite Josepha came down with the tell tale red splotches.  She would die of the disease on October 15, 1767 at only sixteen years old.  (People often mistake portraits of Josepha for Antoinette).

Sadly, in 1768, Marie Antoinette's beautiful, lively sister, Maria Elisabeth, caught smallpox.  Although she survived, the disease would leave her so badly scarred, she was considered unfit for marriage. 

On April 27, 1774, while having an intimate dinner with his mistress Madame du Barry, Louis XV developed a fever and crushing headache.  Within days the once-deveestatingly handsome monarch was covered in angry red welts.  He would suffer terribly, before finally succumbing to the disease on May 10, 1774.
"The air of the palace was infected; more than fifty persons took the smallpox, in consequence of having merely loitered in the galleries of Versailles, and ten died of it."   Madame Campan, describing the death of Louis XV

After the death of Louis XV, Marie Antoinette urged her husband and his brothers to consider inoculation.  On June 17, 1774, Louis XVI was inoculated at the the Château de Marly (It was believed the palace was a healthier, more restive environment than Versailles).

In March 1785, Marie Antoinette's four-year-old son, Louis Joseph, visited La Muette, where he received an inoculation.

Did you know...
  • Poor Louis XVI lost both his father and his grandfather to Smallpox?
  • Voltaire and Marie Therese (Marie Antoinette's mother) were proponents of the smallpox vaccine?
  • Four reigning European monarchs died of smallpox during the 18th century?  Do you know which ones?
  • Some historians suggest 400,000 people died of smallpox each year from 1750-1800?
  • A bout with smallpox could leave a victim blind?
  • Because of his death from smallpox, Louis XV was the first Bourbon whose heart was not cut out and placed in a golden coffer (as was the custom in France)?
  • While Louis XVI was at Marly recovering from his smallpox inoculation, Marie Antoinette wrote, "He has very spectacular spots on his nose, wrist and chest."
  • Did you know a woman is responsible for introducing the variolation to England?  The English aristocrat Lady Mary Wortley Montague was disfigured by the disease and fought in favor of vaccination!  (Girl power!) 
  • Smallpox even inspired a fashion trend! A coiffure became popular during the late 18th century - the pouf a l'inoculation.  Louis XVI submitted to being inoculated against smallpox a month after becoming king and the new hairstyle commemorated the event with a rising sun, an olive tree and a serpent. Marie Antoinette wore the hair pouf to celebrate her triumph in convincing the king to be inoculated. 
  • Other famous people to contract smallpox:  Madame de Sevigne, Henry VIII of England, Anne of Cleeves, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.


  1. Full of facts I did not know. Thank you very much!

  2. I never knew Marie Antoinette had the smallpox. Thank you for this post. It was very interesting.


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