Dr. Vera Gedroits: Google Doodle celebrates 151st 2021 birthday of Russia’s first-ever female military surgeon

Dr. Vera Gedroits: 

Google Doodle celebrates 

151st 2021 

Birthday of Russia’s first-ever

 female military surgeon

Hi Friends,

You can see Dr. Vera Gedroits: Google Doodle celebrates 151st 2021 birthday of Russia’s first-ever female military surgeon. The admission of women into the British Medical Association marked an important stage in the enfranchisement of women in medicine. The part played by Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was significant, as the essentially conservative pioneer who represented the acceptable face of practising women doctors to the (male) profession. 


Indeed, the shift in policy by the profession-if it can be seen as a concerted or collective endeavour at all-was characterised by the forces of circumstance and a desire to control the marginal forces of unregulated doctors, whatever their sex. In the debate a hundred years ago on the admission of women to the association, the march of progress was tempered by pragmatic self interest, a combination without which no revolution is guaranteed success. The name of Princess Vera Gedroits is now no more than an obscure reference in old surgical textbooks,' but her story deserves to be told. She was born in Kiev on 7 April 1876 and her family lived on an estate in Slobodishche in the district of Bryansk. 

Life about Dr. Vera Gedroits

As was the custom, her early education was at home, followed by finishing school in St Petersburg. Well before the 1905 revolution the city was the scene of various underground organisations. Vera took part in the illegal meetings of V A Veinshtok, but after this circle was broken up in 1892 she was sent back home to remain under police supervision. She managed a reprieve and made for Switzerland, a favourite refuge for women from Russia who wanted to study medicine.2 She studied medicine in Lausanne, completing her studies in 1898 at the age of 22, obtaining almost a complete set of top marks in her final examinations. Perhaps still wary ofbeing tracked down, she had three different addresses in three terms and altered her name. 

After qualification Vera worked for a while in Professor Roux's clinic but did not settle, returning to Russia in 1900. In 1904 only 3-4% of Russian doctors were women.4 She published a variety of medical papers but because of her previous connections she came under the attention of the police (the dreaded Okhrana). Possibly because of this and from a sense of adventure she volunteered as a surgeon for a hospital Princess Doctor Vera Gedroits (right) in the company ofofficers of the Imperial Army (probably 1904 5) train organised by the Red Cross. This supplemented the Russian army's medical department and was well supported by wealthy Russians, acting partly through altruism or possibly for the hope of some reward. 

The central committee was in St Petersburg and under the patronage of the empress, who not only ensured that the staff was chosen from the city's best surgeons but also gave over rooms in the Winter Palace for sewing bandages. The War Office's report on the Russo-Japanese war said of Vera: Among those who went to the Front in the service of the Red Cross as surgeons [was] the Princess Gedroits, chief surgeon of the hospital train furnished by the associated nobility of 40 Russian "governments," who was always at the front, operating in a specially constructed car, till the enemy's fire threatened the train.5 This was no small risk. Dr Marcou, physician to the Troitzky Hospital, St Petersburg, cynically wrote of the field ambulances that "the most notable result of their employment has been that not a few of the medical officers in charge of them have been killed in action."6 In this they were perhaps not best served by the instructions for the Russian army: "Military ambulances and hospitals are recognised to be neutral only so long as sick and wounded may be therein. 

Their neutrality ceases if they are defended by a military force. The conclusions of the joint reports written at the end of the war were that healthy fit troops fighting under modern conditions could expect a minimum annual rate of wastage through wounds or illness among the field army of 55%, exclusive of prisoners.5 It is hard to see where the optimism with which the protagonists approached the first world war eight years later was based. The infantry of the 1st army lost 96 7% of its officers and 67% of its men as killed and wounded during the first 13 months of the war. These figures were the result of the widespread use of modem destructive instruments of war, in particular the machine gun. The surgeons lost 12 of their number (two killed, seven missing, and three suicides) and 21 were wounded; 28 were taken prisoner, of whom 20 were subsequently released by the Japanese. Vera presented the results of her work to the Society of Military Doctors on 27 July 1905, making the following points, all of which have current military relevance. The closer a hospital was to the battlefield the more productive was its work, and such a hospital could look after those patients who would be returnedto active duty and those too ill to be evacuated further rearward.8 Her written report ran, with illustrations and diagrams, to 57 pages. 

Her audit of the first month of operation, 28 September to 28 October 1904, shows that 1255 patients were admitted. Of these, 138 had bullet wounds to the head and 61 to the abdomen. Surgical operations were performed in tents smeared over with clay against the cold. As Vera says, "To set up the tents in 22 degrees of frost was difficult." By January 1905 an adapted railway carriage was being used as an operating theatre. In its first six days of use Vera did 56 major surgical operations. It was here that she demonstrated the advantage of early exploration of all penetrating abdominal wounds. Her work was not without risk-at one stage the army resolved not to retreat until all the wounded had been evacuated, and then to attempt to break through the enemy line. This was achieved, but not without being fired on. Vera received royal recognition, being appointed in 1909 a senior "ordinator" at the hospitals at Tsarskoe Selo and Pavlovsk, where she looked after the children of the imperial family.

A lady of letters

Despite this fearsome reputation Vera had a literary talent, privately publishing in 1910 Poems and Fairytales under the pseudonym Sergei Gedroits." Not all her work was fictional. In the same year she published Pages from the Life of a Factory Doctor. After joining the Guild of Poets in 1911 she sponsored publication of a journal named Giperborei (1l-4IEPEOPEI4, from the Greek hyperboreios meaning an inhabitant from the far north; it is the name often given to a Russian or an eastern Slav by the rest of Europe). Her work also appeared in various other collections, including New Journal for All, Theosophical News, Northern Notes, and Precepts.'2 In 1913 she published via the Guild of Poets a personal collection of poems entitled Veg-a pun on her initials and "the way" (German). As an example of her favour in the imperial court, the copy which is now in the New York Public Library is the presentation copy to the grand duchess Tatyana Nikolayevna and has the label of the library in Alexander Palace, Tsarskoe Selo. This was followed in 1914 by a cycle ofpoems called The Red Angel, which stylistically relate to the tradition of folk poetry. She also had other written work published: Chinese Tales appeared in the magazine Precepts (1913) and in The Contemporary (1915). By 1918 she was publishing her Galitsian Stories in Znamya Truda (The Banner of Labour). Galitsia is a part of the Ukraine, a country she was to return to.

War, revolution, and university life

Despite all the other claims on her time Vera had continued the work on hernias that she had learnt from Roux in Switzerland. Like much of her efforts this went unrecorded and unheeded, but can still be found in the archives in Kiev.'3 She amplified this work into a thesis for the doctorate of medicine, University of Moscow, which she achieved in 1912.'4 Before this she had written up her experiences as an industrial doctor when working at the Maltsev factories.'5 She had thus laid the foundations at an early stage for an academic career. This was reinforced by the book she published at the outset of the first world war, Surgical Discussions for Nurses and Doctors.'6 

There is a telling sentence emphasizing the lesson she had learnt in the Russo Japanese war and which it took many months of bitter fighting and countess casualties on the western front to teach: "Abdominal injuries always necessitate surgical intervention and emintion."'7 Vera's experience in the Russo-Japanese war prepared her well for the first world war, and during the years 1917-8 she was a surgeon to the 6th Simbirsk Rifle Division (Simbirsk is a region of Siberia). 

After being wounded she was evacuated to Kiev. She survived the troubled times after the war and revolution and established herself as an academic surgeon. In 1924she published a workon the biological foundations of nutrition'8 and also worked on more traditional surgical topics such as the surgical treatment oftuberculosis of the knee.'9 In 1929 she was appointed professor ofsurgery at the University of Kiev. This was quite an achievement for a princess. She had started to write her memoirs, which were very fictionalised but related to fact. They make up a cycle under the general title Life published in 1930 and 1931 but dealing only with'her life up to 1904. 

She died in Kiev in 1932 at the age of 56. Who knows what she may have written about her later years, which surely must have been as full and exciting as any of the other professors of surgery about whom so much has been written.

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