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Reviewed by:
  • The Imperial Laboratory: Experimental Physiology and Clinical Medicine in Post-Crimean Russia
  • Mary Schaeffer Conroy, Ph.D.
Galina Kichigina. The Imperial Laboratory: Experimental Physiology and Clinical Medicine in Post-Crimean Russia. Amsterdam, New York, Editions Rodopi (The Wellcome Series in the History of Medicine), 2009. 374 pp., €76.

This is a fascinating, well-written story of how empirical medicine— that which relied on observation of symptoms, questioning the patient, and application of remedies derived by trial and error—was superseded during the nineteenth century by medicine based on increasingly accurate knowledge of the physiology, chemistry, and mechanics of the body acquired through vivisection and analysis using microscopes, test tubes, and other apparatus in specially outfitted laboratories—a process that paralleled and relied on discoveries in the physical sciences.

Although the subtitle suggests discussion of experimental physiology and clinical medicine in Russia during the second half of the nineteenth century, the book wisely begins in the century’s first half, focuses on research, and is broadly European in scope. This could have been a tedious, encyclopedic survey of scientific developments. However, steeped in the scientific content, fluent in French, German, and Russian, and with a brisk English writing style, Kichigina unreels a panoramic and dynamic drama of scientists and scientific developments in France, various German states, and the Austrian Empire; Russian scientists’ experiments in the foreign laboratories; and the establishment of laboratories in various parts of the Russian Empire. She views German scientist Carl Ludwig’s mechanistic explanation of blood pressure, venous pressure, and renal filtration in the early 1840s—a [End Page 504] process approximating “electrical mechanics, telegraphy and ballistics” and employing an apparatus of his own “path breaking” construction (59–63). German scientists dominated the century, but Russian scientists made important investigations and periodically surpassed their French, German, and Austrian colleagues. Kichigina’s medical training allows her to deliver vivid descriptions of discoveries about the heart, nerves, and brain control of bodily functions and clear, concise, understandable explanations of other findings, more complex and sometimes arcane, as well as the apparatus involved. Interesting sidebars provide context to the main story—the origin of the Siemens firm, delightful Heidelberg, a damp Parisian laboratory, the Nobel’s dacha that neighbored Nikolai Zinin’s. Colorful vignettes and photographs of the plethora of scientists recounted make them three-dimensional and memorable. Kichigina also explores the cultural debates that enlivened the international scientific community and the academic controversies, intrigues, and personality conflicts that rent collegial interaction.

Amongst Russian scientists, Alexander Borodin, Sergei Botkin, Ilia Tsion (Cyon), and Ivan Sechenov stand out. Borodin’s nationalistic and exotic musical compositions are well known, but the fact that he was also a highly published, respected chemist whose colleagues begged him to abandon music for science is not. Significant research was conducted in Botkin’s laboratory (208), but he alone of the scientists depicted remained a dedicated clinician. Little known Tsion (Cyon) emerges as a gifted scientist, driven out of his professorship at the Medical–Surgical Academy in St. Petersburg by radical leftist students, while the physiologist/psychologist Sechenov— who assisted Tsion on a professional level—suffered ostracism from the Russian establishment because of his materialistic views about the will and morality. Pavlov, well covered by Daniel Todes, is only a shadowy figure.

The book does have one major and a few minor flaws. Kichigina’s thorough grounding in and ability to communicate scientific information is marred by faulty knowledge of Russian political history. Although Tsar Nicholas I recoiled from revolutionary upheavals in 1825, 1830,and 1848, Kichigina’s clichéd picture of him as a tyrant who suppressed education, particularly science, has long been refuted by W. Bruce Lincoln’s study of the “Enlightened Bureaucrats” in Nicholas’s government (In the Vanguard of Reform, DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1982) and by Cynthia Whittaker’s biography of Sergei Uvarov, Nicholas’s Minister of Education (The Origins of Modern Russian Education, De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1984). Indeed, Kichigina herself records Nicholas’s generous subsidization of study abroad, her chapter on Zinin details his numerous chemical syntheses at the provincial University of Kazan in the 1840s, and regarding Mendeleev, future discoverer of the periodic table...


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pp. 504-507
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