Vera Gedroits Biography: Birth, Early Life, Education, Career, and Death

Today is the 151st birth anniversary of Dr. Vera Gedroits who was a Russian doctor of medicine, professor, poet and author.
Created On: Apr 19, 2021 16:02 IST
Modified On: Apr 19, 2021 16:29 IST
Vera Gedroits Biography
Vera Gedroits Biography

Vera Gedroits was a Russian doctor of medicine, professor, poet and author. She was the first female military surgeon in Russia, and also the first female who served as a physician in the Imperial Palace of Russia. She was among the world's first female professors of surgery. On the occasion of her 151st  birth anniversary, she was featured in Google Doodle. 

Vera Gedroits: Birth, Early Life, Education

Vera Ignatievna Gedroits was born on 19 April 1870 in Slobodishche (present-day Bryansk Oblast) in the Oryol Governorate of the Russian Empire to Daria Konstantinovna Mikhau and Prince Ignatiy Ignatievich Gedroits. She had five siblings, namely, Maria, Ignatius, Nadezhda, Sergei and Alexandra. Gedroits was fond of her brother Sergei who died young. Following his brother's death, she vowed to become a doctor to prevent suffering. 

In her early years, she attended Bryansk women's gymnasium for a brief period under Vasily Rozanov but was expelled later due to her mischievous behaviour. With the help of his friend, S. I. Maltsov, her father introduced Gedroits to medicine as a family assistant. Under the influence of S. I. Maltsov, she was readmitted to the gymnasium and matriculated with honours in the year 1885. She continued her education in St. Petersburg and attended the medical courses of the anatomy of professor Peter Lesgaft. 

She was involved in a revolutionary movement and was arrested in the year 1892 but was later released. Following her involvement in the aforementioned movement, she was unable to complete her studies in Russia and entered into a marriage of convenience with a friend, Nikolai Belozerov. Despite being openly lesbian, she and Belozerov met frequently and travelled together. Gedroits used her new name and obtained a passport to go to Switzerland to complete her further studies while Belozerov's military career took him to Irkutsk in Siberia. She graduated in 1898 from the University of Lausanne. She received her diploma as a Doctor of Medicine and Surgery. 

Vera Gedroits: Career

After receiving her diploma degree, she began working as an intern in a therapy clinic and was soon posted as a junior assistant to Roux. She later became Roux's senior assistant and was subsequently offered the post of Privatdozent. She was forced to return to Russia after having received a pleading letter from her father. His father urged her to return and assist him in getting her mother to recover from nervous exhaustion, promising to help her secure work in a new 10-bed factory hospital that was under construction. She returned to Slobodishche in 1900.

On her return to Russia, she was hired at the Maltsov Cement Factory as the plant's physician. By the year 1901, she performed 248 operations with minimal fatalities. She was concerned about the overall health of the workers due to the inadequate safety practices followed by the factory. Thus, she prepared a list of recommendations for factory administrators which included clean wells, hot meals, and washing tubs. 

Apart from this, she started publishing scientific articles in Russian medical journals, which were reprinted in German and French. In 1902, she was invited to participate in the Third Congress of Surgeons where she presented a report on the surgery performed on a male patient suffering from a deformation of the hip joints in 1901. The patient was able to walk without crutches after the surgery. 

To practise medicine elsewhere in Russia, she was required to obtain certifications to meet the requirements of the University of Moscow, despite her Swiss degree. She sought permission to test for the Latin requirement at the Oryol Gubernatorial Gymnasium. As she was under the watch of police since her association with the movement during her college years, she was required to get a statement of character to be able to appear for the test. On 21 February 1903, after successfully passing the exams, she earned the title of a female doctor and received a diploma that allowed her to practise medicine anywhere in Russia. She attempted to end her life in 1903. 

Vera Gedroits and Russo-Japanese War

In 1904, she volunteered to go to the frontline with the Red Cross in the midst of the Russo-Japanese War. She treated around 9,225 patients in the first month of the war. By January 1905, she was appointed as a chief surgeon of the hospital train. During that time, penetrating abdominal wounds without anaesthesia were considered inoperable. However, Gedroits became the first person to perform laparotomies on military patients, having extensive experience in abdominal surgery for hernias. Her high success rate was high.

Initially designed to treat 2,000 people, the hospital expanded its capacity. Russia was defeated in the war. Following this, Gedroits helped organize the hospital evacuation from near the Fushun Mining region, which was performed under gunfire because the Russian troops refused to retreat until the patients were moved. She saved the life of the then Chief-of-Staff of the Imperial Russian Army and Japanese Prince. She returned to the Maltsov Factory Hospital as a chief surgeon in 1905 and was appointed as a Chief doctor of the Lyudinovskaya Hospital. She was honoured for her actions during wartime. 

Vera Gedroits and her work

She was divorced on 22 December 1905. On 1 February 1907, her maiden name and noble title were restored. Between 1902 and 1909, she published 17 scientific papers. The Lyudinovskaya Mining Plant was turned into a surgical hospital to serve the nearby communities of the districts. Gedroits utilized her battlefield experiences and Swiss education as a basis for bringing it up to modern European standards. She later expanded the facility and equipped it with surgical implements such as white gowns, threads, gloves and so on. She promoted the use of ether rather than chloroform for anaesthesia, obtained apparatuses such as D'Arsonval and Tesla high-frequency current instruments, and x-ray machines, special garments for patients, bed linens. 

In 1909, she became the senior resident physician at the Tsarskoye Selo Court Hospital upon the invitation of Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna. As the first female physician of the royal household, and the second-highest-ranking member of the hospital's staff, she attended the Departments of Surgery and Gynecology while acting as the attending physician for the royal children. 

Gedroits published a collection of poems in 1887 but she now joined Poet's Guild publishing her poems under the pen name Sergei Gedroits. On 11 May 1912, she earned her doctorate of surgery, becoming the first woman to achieve the distinction from the University of Moscow. 

In 1914, with the outbreak of World War II, she worked on equipping the hospital and prepared the staff for war. When the February Revolution began in 1917, as an employee of the Tsar, she couldn't openly support the Russian Provisional Government. In order to remain neutral in the conflict, while still honouring her friendship with the royal family, she chose to return to work as a military doctor. She altered the birth information in her passport and was appointed as a chief physician for the 6th Siberian Rifle Regiment. At the battlefront, she served the wounded of the Battle of Galicia in June 1917. The same year in July, she was transferred to the 5th Siberian Rifle Corps as a divisional surgeon. In January 1918, she was injured during the demobilization after the October Revolution and was taken to a military hospital in the Pechersk neighbourhood of Kiev. 

While recovering from the injury, she moved in with Countess Nirod and lived with him for the remainder of her days as a married couple. During this time, she published two poems that reflected on her war impressions. After recovering from the injury, she began working in the hospital of  Intercession Monastery. In 1919, she established a clinic to perform maxillofacial surgery and in 1920 she was invited by  Yevgeny Tcherniakhovsky to join as the faculty in the surgical department of Kiev Medical Institute. 

In 1921, she started teaching a course on pediatric surgery and was appointed as a professor of medicine in 1923. In the year 1924, she published a paper on nutrition and in 1928, she wrote an article for treating tuberculosis in the knee. She published a textbook on pediatric surgery, wrote extensively for surgical journals with articles on surgery, endocrinology and oncology; and participated in surgical conferences.

In 1929, after Tcherniakhovsky's arrest, Gedroits became the departmental head of surgery but during the Soviet purge, she was removed from her post and denied a pension. Using funds she had saved, she purchased a house on the outskirts of Kiev, where they both moved together. While continuing to work at the Intercession Monastery's hospital and she devoted the next two years to writing. 

Vera Gedroits: Death

In 1931, she was diagnosed with womb cancer and died in March 1932 at the age of 61. She was buried in the Savior-Transfiguration Cemetery by Archbishop Ermogen, a patient of hers. 

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