Senior Thesis on the First Generation of Women Doctors in Pre-Revolutionary Russia

Marie Machat, Class of 2007

During winter break and for several Fridays in the beginning of the Spring ’07 semester, I traveled to the New York Academy of Medicine Library located on Fifth and 103rd Street in New York City. Primary source research at other New York libraries had turned up several memoirs written by Russian women doctors about the period 1860-1890, but I lacked a source for the political and broader social difficulties facing each of these women. The Academy of Medicine Library is the only library in the United States which houses the first decades of Vrach (The Doctor), a journal that began weekly circulation in St. Petersburg in 1880 and soon became the most widely read journal of its kind. It was a major forum for debates about medical education, healthcare reform, and professional conditions, incorporating, expanding upon, and researching issues discussed in other popular journals at the time.

I felt privileged to read through the original and crumbling volumes of Vrach. The library staff was helpful in locating the oldest sources and were also intrigued to learn what the journals contained, as I was the first person the staff had witnessed research them. The experience of digging through material that has not been touched by other modern historians was very exciting and taught me first-hand what a challenging and rewarding task the historian faces. The volumes revealed a complex and foreign world on a level that greatly exceeded my expectations.

G. M. Gertsenschtein and V. N. Grebenshikov were experts of their time on the history and state of medical education in Russia, on the problems facing the medical profession and the effect of the emancipation of serfs in 1861, and on the position of women in medicine. Much of their writing and research was published in Vrach. Their work became the backbone of my research, exposing the complexity of debates about whether women should be allowed to study and practice medicine, and how they were perceived as beneficial or harmful to Russian society. Material in Vrach also provided extensive biographical details about Russia’s first women physicians, including social class, where they practiced medicine, and how influential they were in Russian medical practice. This proved to be an invaluable complement to my other research, and without it, my understanding of the achievements of these women physicians would not be the same.