Saturday, September 23, 2023

Boris Petrovsky – one of the great Russian doctors we should not forget, despite Putin

Do Russians understand rugby? Eoin O’Brien describes a chance meeting with the great Russian doctor Boris Petrovsky and how he managed to entertain him in Dublin in the early Sixties at a boring rugby match.

The invasion of Ukraine by Russia under the leadership of the despicable despot, Vladimir Putin, has tended to obscure the many positive aspects of a country that has given the world so much. We need only think of Anton Chekov, and Nicoli Korotkoff in medicine, and the wonderful literature and music of Tolstoy and Rachmaninov to be immensely grateful to a Russia that will survive the machinations of its current leader. These thoughts put me in mind of a curious moment in my distant life as a medical student in RCSI.

On Saturday February 9, 1963, when I was in my final year, I received a phone call from my uncle, Harry
O’Flanagan, who was Registrar, telling me that he wanted me to urgently undertake a task he could not fulfil because of pressing duties.

Ireland was playing England at Lansdowne Road and he wanted me to escort a famous Russian surgeon, named Boris Petrovsky, and his wife (also a doctor) to the international game. He provided me with front row seats in the upper stand where I duly parked my rather large Russian companions. I sat between the pair hoping that I might be able to explain some the niceties of rugby to them.

However, they were not interested in explanation, preferring to interpret the scrums and lineouts for themselves. They became intensely involved in the game, standing up and cheering inappropriately when England looked like scoring. I had to explain to the bewildered Irish fans in the seats around me that my friends were Russian and did not understand the rudiments of the game. The presence of visitors from such a distant land – together with their inappropriate waving and cheering – permitted the Irish supporters some light relief in an otherwise dismal game, which ended in a scoreless draw, an outcome that had last occurred in 1910.

I walked the Petrovskys back to the Shelbourne Hotel in good time for a rest before the Charter Day dinner where he was to be awarded an honorary fellowship. As a medical student I was quite unaware of the fame and achievements of the remarkable man who had been entrusted to my care, but I had welcomed the opportunity to watch the game from good seats. How remiss of me not to have had time to research the reputation of this surgeon, who remains to this day one of the most significant figures in Russian medicine.

Of course, in these pre-Internet days, it was not possible to obtain information as readily as it is today, and Harry O’Flanagan had simply told me that Petrvosky was ‘very famous’ in Russia.

I recall nostalgically a few moments from the afternoon. The Petrovskys were fascinated with the gardens of the houses on Lansdowne Road, and they spent much time peering in the gates at the well-tended lawns and flower beds. Research for this vignette has alerted me to the fact that one of Petrovsky’s many accomplishments, outside of medicine, was gardening, and this, together with the absence of such gardens in urban Russian houses, was cause for their enthrallment with the streetscapes of Lansdowne and Pembroke Roads, which we take so much for granted.

I also learned a few words of Russian. As we wended our way along the streets of Baggotonia towards the Shelbourne Hotel, Petrovsky consulted a very elaborate chronometer, and when I asked him how we were doing for time, he instructed me in the correct pronunciation of the Russian words Kotoryi chas, which I used on occasion, in my later visits to that magnificent but much ill-ruled country.

Petrovsky’s achievements are so momentous and varied that a brief essay can only provide a glimpse of the more significant aspects of a sparkling career; many books, essays, biographies and critical commentaries have been written about Boris Vasiliyevich Petrovsky, who was born on June 27, 1908 in the town of Essentuki, in the northern Caucasus.

He studied medicine at Moscow University and soon after his graduation in 1930 served in the Red Army as a doctor. In 1933 he became a researcher at the Moscow Institute of Oncology, where his kandidatskaya dissertation (the equivalent of a PhD thesis) was on transfusion of blood and blood substitutes in oncology.

He served as a military surgeon during the war with Finland (1939 to 1940) and with Germany (1941 to 1945). During the Great Patriotic War with Germany he operated on more than 800 cases of gunshot wounds affecting blood vessels, and subsequently wrote up his experiences in his doctorskaya dissertation (a thesis needed for an academic career) and in a book, Surgical Treatment of Vascular Injuries (1949).

In 1945, Petrovsky became deputy director of the Research Institute for Experimental and Clinical Surgery, where he concentrated on oesophageal surgery. In 1948, he became a professor of general surgery at the Moscow State Medical Institute.

From 1949 to 1951 he held the position of Chairman of Hospital Surgery at Budapest University in Hungary.

On his return to Moscow, he was elected Chairman of surgery at the Moscow Medical Institute N2 (now Russian State Medical University), and in 1956 he became Chairman of surgery at the Moscow State Medical Institute (now the Sechenov Moscow Medical Academy).

Petrovsky introduced several surgical innovations, including an apparatus for artificial circulation and he developed a technique for inserting mitral valve prostheses without sutures. In 1965 he performed the first kidney transplant in the Soviet Union.

In the same year he was appointed as minister of health, a post he occupied with distinction for fifteen years – longer than any other minister of health in Soviet history.

During his time as minister he reformed Soviet medical education, introducing a year of postgraduate specialisation. He also supported the idea of an Oath for a Soviet Physician, approved by the Soviet Parliament in 1971. This followed the Hippocratic Oath, with the addition of placing private interests secondary to public interests. He was also responsible for establishing anaesthesiology as a specialty, creating joint chairs for both anaesthesiology and intensive care at all Soviet medical schools.

While he was minister of health he continued to work at the All-Union Research Institute for Clinical and Experimental Surgery, operating twice a week. In 1973 he opened the Soviet Union’s first department of microsurgery, where fingers, hands and shoulders were replanted.

He was a past President of the USSR Surgical Society and a past vice-president of the European Society of Cardiovascular Surgery. He was presented with many honours, including honorary fellowships of the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland, of the Surgical Societies of Poland, Hungary, Italy and Cuba, of the Czechoslovakian Medical Society and of the French Surgical Academy. He was a prolific writer and he published his memoirs, Man. Medicine. Life in 1995.

He enjoyed travelling, singing, attending the Bolshoi ballet, collecting books and gardening. He died on May 4, 2004 and is buried at Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow, where his sculpted figure in surgical garb is final testimony to a doctor who advanced not only surgery but also the ethical behaviour of doctors.

Eoin O’Brien’s memoir A Life in Medicine: From Asclepius to Beckett has been published recently by The Lilliput Press.

This book recounts training at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, a career as a cardiologist and research in hypertension with many friends and colleagues from around the world. The memoir is interwoven with personalities in literature and art leading to close friendships with Samuel Beckett, Nevill Johnson, Con Leventhal, Brian O’Doherty and Niall Sheridan among others.

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