Our Notes & References
First-hand observations of the first cholera epidemic in Russia and its treatment: an important addition to “a body of data which is of the first importance for today’s historian studying Russian [medical] development.” (McGrew).
The first outbreak of cholera epidemic in Russia in 1830-31 took life of almost 200,000 people across the empire, according to official figures. The knowledge of the disease was insufficient, and the authorities experienced serious difficulties handling it on a national level. The most common measure was the establishment of quarantines which proved to be unsuccessful and mainly provoked a public outcry and the so-called “cholera riots” in several regions.
In the world of literature, the pandemic and its quarantines became famous for being a remarkably fertile period in Pushkin’s life: blocked in his family estate during the entire autumn 1830, he wrote about 30 poems, prose novellas and even “small tragedies”.
“Since Russia herself […] was the first European power to face the cholera in her own territories, developments in Russia were watched closely from abroad” (McGrew). Numerous studies on the subject were written and presented worldwide, and in Russia especially. “The study of Russian medicine in this period is particularly rewarding, not because of discoveries which changed the course of medical science, but because of the light shed on Russia’s scientific medical development in a highly significant stage of cultural transition” (McGrew). From that point of view, the five works gathered here are of particular interest: they all offer first-hand observations of patients in Moscow, speculate on the nature of the disease, suggest possible solutions to protect people from the disease and sometimes give assessments of Russian hospitals.
The first work in this collection, Des préservatifs contre le choléra-morbus épidémique, is by Gustave Euphranor Marin-Darbel (1802-78), a tutor of Prince Ivan Gagarin in Moscow and later an archivist assigned to the Moscow archives of the Collegium of Foreign Affairs. Marin-Darbel eventually spent thirty years (1824-54) in Russia also taking care of the Gagarins’ several estates and enterprises; upon his return to France he resumed his scholarly work.
On 2 November 1830 he wrote a letter to tsar Nicholas I proposing his solutions to deal with the pandemic. The letter was passed to the council of Moscow doctors, and “on 3 December 1830, nine of Moscow’s most renowned physicians agreed that Marin-Darbel was quite right: cholera was an epidemic disease, but not contagious, which meant that quarantine arrangements were useless […] In the autumn of 1830, when the French were generally out of favour in Russia because of the Revolution that had just taken place [in France…] the endorsement of Maren-Darbel’s letter can be seen as evidence of the rehabilitation of the French scientific thought” (Milchina, our translation).
Marin-Darbel was very proud of his contribution to the treatment of cholera and sent his reflections also to the Paris Medical Gazette (where his work was published on 29 January 1831), to the Academy of Sciences in Paris, and then published the present pamphlet through Bossange in Paris in 1831. Interestingly, some anonymous Observations sur le choléra-morbus, recueillies et publiées par l’ambassade de France en Russie were published in Paris in October 1831, showing the keen interest of the Western European countries in the Russian pandemic.
The Pensée sur le choléra-morbus (Moscou, Imprimerie d’Auguste Semen, 1831) was “lu au Conseil de Medecine, le 6 mars”, by the surgeon, Doctor of Medicine and later privy councillor Mikhail (Karl-Franz) Antonovich Markus (1790-1865). From 1825 he was the chief doctor of the Golitsyn Hospital, then the doctor of Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna from 1834, and from 1837 he was appointed physician to the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. During the epidemic, Markus was a practising specialist and a secretary of the Moscow Cholera Council.
Markus discusses the work of the Moscow Cholera Council and presents current cholera theories, autopsy reports, compares symptoms and treatment of cholera with other “maladies du coeur”, and presents the conclusions drawn from these reports. Markus also highlights the research of Dr Jaehnichen who, based on the body of autopsy data and chemical analyses, suggested the theory that “cholera produced decomposition of the blood”: “it was clear that a strong scientific tradition had come into being in Russia, and that Russian medical scientists were capable of both painstaking analysis and creative generalization” (McGrew). In 1832, Markus expanded this research into a larger treatise, especially valuable for its detailed information.
Markus’ work is followed by Jaehnichen’s Quelques réflexions sur le choléra-morbus (Moscou, Imprimerie d’Auguste Semen, 1831), the longest essay in the volume. The respected medical inspector and “Membre Du Conseil Temporaire de Médecine” discusses his experience treating several hundreds of cholera patients and critically analyses other contemporary works on the subject, writing at length against the publication and thoughts of a despised colleague, whom we couldn’t identify. He also discusses his opinion that cholera in Russia is different from the one detected earlier in India and needs to be treated through different methods.
The volume goes on with its only work by a Russian, the Observations faites sur le choléra morbus dans le quartier de Yakimanka à Moscou en 1830 (Moscou, Imprimerie d’Auguste Semen, 1831), by B. Zoubkoff [Vasilii Zubkov], a friend of Aleksandr Pushkin, a freemason and a statesman. During the epidemic, Zubkov was appointed a head of several parts of Yakimanka district in Moscow supervising local hospitals, the treatment of patients and sanitary regulations. In this pamphlet, he includes a full-page engraved plan of Yakimanka and his observations of the nature of cholera. Moreover, he shows “that cholera was being spread neither by contagious nor miasmatic means, but that cases clustered in low-elevation residences near a river/canal in a flood plain area, associated with apparent waterborne hospital transmission and with consumption of contaminated vegetables” (Morens).
The last work in this specialist, very focused collection is in Russian, translated from German. Written by Khristian Loder (also Justus Christian Loder), Ob epidemii kholery v Moskve. Pismo ot 14 noiabria 1830 goda [Letter of 14 November 1830 about the cholera epidemic in Moscow] (Moskva, Univ. tip., 1831) was originally sent to the Privy Councillor and Medical Officer Konrad Christian von Stoffregen. Loder (1753-1832) was a German-born doctor of medicine and anatomist practising in Germany and Russia; Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was among his anatomy students. In 1810 he became the lieutenant-medic of Emperor Alexander I; in 1819-27 he headed the department of anatomy at Moscow University where he lectured until 1831. During the epidemic in 1830, he was a consultant in Arbat Hospital and his letter shows how quick the Moscow publishers could react to important issues: the letter was written on 14/11/1830, and the censor’s agreement is dated 29/12; printing would have followed shortly. The essay here also includes a supplement, probably published later: it is printed on a slightly different paper, with a separate pagination and a censor’s agreement dated 01/04/31. Interestingly Loder also makes (positive) references in his letter to Marin-Darbel.
All five works are very rare: Worldcat doesn’t any physical copies of Zubkov, Jaehnichen (but there is one in Edinburgh) and Loder (but we could trace one in Moscow and one in Prague) and it only lists 2 physical copies of Marin Darbel and 6 physical copies of Markus.
McGrew, R. E. “The First Russian Cholera Epidemic: Themes and Opportunities.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, vol. 36, no. 3, 1962, pp. 220–44.
Morens DM. “Commentary: cholera conundrums and proto-epidemiologic puzzles. The confusing epidemic world of John Lea and John Snow”. Int J Epidemiol, 2013 Feb; 42(1), pp. 43-52.
Milchina Vera, “Frantsuzy poleznye i vrednye”: Nadzor za inostrantsami v Rossii vo vremia Nikolaia I, NLO, 2017.