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About the project

Project aims

The century between 1770 and 1870 was not only the time of imperial expansion, but also of internal consolidation. Healthcare services were expanding and doctors gained expert status, which were spread across the imperial territories and even the waterways surrounding the empire. Assuming that, as in other empires, Russian medicine was involved in ordering, stabilizing and conceptualizing the empire, how did it do so? Did medicine make Russian subjects healthy or did it create new hygiene regimes and administer them with the help of these rules? Or maybe it was all about the ways in which the imperial peripheries' resources and environmental improvement projects were used efficiently?

While searching for answers to these questions, the project participants look towards medico-geographical knowledge and its use. In the times under investigation, diseases were defined as an imbalance between living organisms and the environment. Physicians studied geography as well as people in the imperial periphery to find universal ways to prevent and treat disease, and fight against epidemics. The medical knowledge gained from this studies was recorded in various documents to be analysed: hospital journals and case histories, instructions of Medical Councils and reports of medical boards, topographical descriptions and statistical registers, memoirs and journal articles, textbooks and lectures. The new medico-geographical discourse, which placed health and disease in the context of the environment, developed through the interaction of scholarly doctors and Russian administrators with "traditional" medical cultures, as well as through the regular exchange of information and treatment skills with medical professionals from the other empires.

The project aims to explore the history of the circulation and production of medico-geographical knowledge and the history of health care in the Russian Empire from a transnational and local perspective. The project combines macro- and micro-approaches. Participants study the transnational communications of scholarly educated physicians and empire-wide problems (e.g. epidemics). This broad perspective allows us to consider Russia in dialogue and interaction with neighbouring maritime powers and links medicine with other scientific disciplines (mineralogy, geography, climatology and meteorology).

The project intends to use local sources to test the validity of postcolonial approaches in order to explore how local healing practices and conceptions of illness and health influenced the content of 'Western' scientific medicine on behalf of which the imperial centre acted. Using medical and geographical knowledge, Russian physicians contributed to a conceptualisation of the spatial diversity of the Russian Empire. At the same time, the Russian case reveals, what made the Russian medicine "imperial" in different way from other countries, and thereby expands our understanding of how empires function. Presumably, medicine in Tsarist Russia was imperial not simply because it spread to remote peripheries, but because medical professionals and their expertise helped to control and define that very periphery as something other.

The project was supported by the German Research Society (DFG) and the Russian Scientific Foundation (РНФ) and was conducted by a research team led by Professors Elena Vishlenkova (HSE University, Moscow) and Andreas Renner (Ludwig Maximilian University Munich) from 2019 to 2021. As a result of the project, a collective monograph "История медицины и медицинской географии в Российской империи" [History of Medicine and Medical Geography in the Russian Empire] was published (Moscow 2021).

Research issues

Historiography of medical history

  • History of medical geography in the Russian Empire and the USSR
  • Historiography of medical history in the USSR

The medical profession and public health

  • Medical Education
  • Medical Personnel in Public Health in the Russian Empire
  • International recruitment of physicians in XVIII and the first third of XIX centuries
  • Medical Societies
  • Maritime Quarantines
  • Medical geography in Russian administrative practices in the Kazakh steppe (1770–1870)
  • Involvement of medical and geographical knowledge in beautification of Russian towns (Astrakhan)
  • Role of medicine in the voyages of the Russian Imperial Navy (1730–1870)

The Creation of Medical Knowledge

  • Disease and Environment in European Medical Theories
  • Medical-Topographical Descriptions
  • Nosologies of Russian diseases
  • Definition of (un)healthy areas of the world
  • Medical statistics
  • Medical History of the Russian North
  • Medico-geographical researches by J.J. Lerhe (1730-1780)
  • Medico-geographical researches of J. Frank


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