Study of a Russian doctor and innovator in troubled times
Ambroise Paré, Thomas Sydenham and Herman Boerhaave: all were great medical innovators in their time. We know far less about the 19th-century Russian physician and scientist Nikolay Ivanovich Pirogov. PhD candidate Inge Hendriks researched him in Dutch and Russian archives and collections. She discovered a skilled doctor and a special link to Leiden.
Why was Nikolay Ivanovich Pirogov such an interesting doctor? What made him and his work special?
‘While studying Russian language and literature at Leiden University, I focused my elective course on “Healthcare in 19th-century Russia: the history of nursing”. During this research in Russia, I regularly came across the physician Nikolay Ivanovich Pirogov and it piqued my interest. I began my research on him back in 1997.
‘Pirogov was a 19th-century Russian physician and scientist. As a student, he was very dissatisfied with his study programme: it was old-fashioned with books from the 18th century, too theoretical and with little scientific foundation. When he graduated at the age of 17, he did not consider himself a doctor because he had only seen a single patient and had never performed an autopsy. He then continued his education as a talented PhD candidate in Dorpat, Berlin and Göttingen, among other places. My research, and other studies, show he was ahead of his time in many respects.’
How did you discover this about Pirogov?
‘I began with a literature survey and by looking through the collections of several Dutch libraries, including that of Leiden University. Then I started looking across the border in Germany and France. Later in St Petersburg, I gained access to all public libraries, as well as libraries of important institutions. That was an eye-opener. I also discovered there the powerful link Pirogov had with Leiden medicine, and how Leiden’s medical knowledge from the 18th century strongly influenced modern Russian medicine (see below, ed.).
‘Pirogov is best known for his knowledge of field surgery: one of his most famous books was Kriegchirurgie from 1860, which became a kind of handbook for medical care in conflict situations. He gained this knowledge in the Caucasian War in 1847 and the Crimean War between 1854 and 1856. For this, he was also later commended by the Red Cross, making history as a military doctor or field surgeon. But he was so much more than that. In Russia, he elevated medicine from a craft to a science, putting Russia on the map. I – and many researchers who worked with me – hope that Nikolay Pirogov will become better known in the world’s literature of medicine as a physician, scientist and innovator, especially in the field of applied anatomy in surgery. He really belongs among such famous physicians as Ambroise Paré, Thomas Sydenham and Herman Boerhaave.’
You started your research into Pirogov back in 1997, for which you also had to be in Russia. But the relationship between Russia and the Netherlands has deteriorated considerably in recent years, with the downing of flight MH17, the annexation of Crimea and, of course, the invasion of Ukraine this year. Has that affected your research?
‘Conducting my research naturally required me to be in Russia often, and I’ve worked with Russian researchers and institutes. We’ve maintained a dialogue in easy and challenging times, assisted each other and never violated agreements. In other words, we’ve encountered no difficulties, and the collaboration is still in place. I am happy about this because, as Minister Dijkgraaf also wrote in his letter (in Dutch) from March of this year: “It is important to maintain good informal contacts between students and researchers in the Russian Federation and Belarus, especially in these times. Such contacts will lay the groundwork for normalising educational and scientific relations again at a later date...”’
As a PhD candidate, what is it like for you when your medical history research suddenly takes on a different connotation because of current geopolitics?
‘My medical history research is based on cultural, scientific and medical sources from another century. We are working on sources from another era and describing our findings from the perspective of scientific objectivity, independent of current geopolitics.’
Hendriks’s research on Pirogov has yielded a special by-product: the PhD candidate has discovered many sources about the shared medical history of the Netherlands and Russia. Hendriks: ‘For example, we knew that Tsar Peter had visited the Netherlands, but not that he trained here as a surgeon. His tutors were several Dutch doctors. Leiden University in particular played a key role in shaping Russian medicine during that period. You could also call Pirogov a sort of spiritual student of the Leiden medical school, as he had access in Russia to quite a lot of Dutch cultural heritage, including the archives of Herman Boerhaave and the atlases of André Vesalius and Govert Bidloo.’
A virtual exhibition ‘A Fruitful Cooperation’ was created about this shared history in 2021.
Response of Pancras Hogendoorn, Inge Hendriks’s PhD supervisor and dean of LUMC
As things stand, are you, as a Dutch scholar, still allowed to do research in Russia?
‘There are, of course, sanctions against Russia, and in March of this year, we as universities froze all collaborations with Russian institutions at the request of Minister Dijkgraaf. However, he also stressed that personal collaborations between individual scholars needed to be preserved, as Inge also points out. That put many scholars here in an awkward position: can my ongoing project continue or not? We then had to weigh up each collaboration at the university, for example in terms of cybersecurity and knowledge security. So yes, it is still allowed, under conditions.
‘And of course, collaboration is also much more complicated in a practical sense. Financial transactions, for example, are practically impossible, and a fellow researcher from Russia can no longer simply come to the Netherlands for, say, a conference or joint research here. Because of sanctions or because of their own security; after all, emotions are running high because of the invasion of Ukraine. That is also the case with Inge’s doctoral defence: it is why some academics from her examining committee cannot attend the defence here in Leiden.’
Even if it were allowed, should we really want to continue working with Russian academics or doing research in Russia?
‘I think so. First, because you don’t want to completely drop ongoing projects without a second thought; they involve years of work and money, so you have to carefully assess such a choice. And a research project can also have started a long time ago – consider Inge’s work – and due to the geopolitical situation take on a new significance that has nothing to do with the content of the research. Besides, as we and the joint universities also stated in response to Minister Dijkgraaf’s measures: research thrives on international collaboration and knowledge exchange. Universities are the institutions that keep the dialogue going, and science transcends borders. Here in Leiden, we believe in the power of such international collaboration, although we are not naive in doing so and keep an eye on the necessary safeguards of academic freedom.’
Photo: Wikimedia Commons