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Friedrich Erismann

Friedrich Erismann© Stadtarchiv Zürich V.L.136 Stadtrat (ab 1893

Surprisingly enough, the first Swiss to come to Petersburg as medical specialists were the mathematicians Daniel Bernoulli and Leonhard Euler, who were initially engaged to teach and research physiology at the Academy of Science. This was not so unusual in the 18th century, when the different branches of science still overlapped. Bernoulli, for example, applied his discoveries about the movement of liquids to his research into the circulation of the blood. Euler had not even studied medicine when Bernoulli invited him to join the Academy: he quickly made up the deficiency, only to find on arrival that there was no physiology post for him after all and he was eventually offered a position in mathematics. Euler's son, Karl, (1740-1790) became one of the physicians to the Russian court. He also carried out smallpox vaccinations.

While the members of the Academy of Science carried out physiological research, other Swiss were active in the wards and in the area of public health.

Aimé Mathey (1735 - 1792) was particularly useful, since he had been born in Moscow to Swiss parents and was thus a Russian speaker and could be used to train Russian surgeons. (Surgeons were less skilled than physicians.) After studying abroad, he spent most of his professional life working as a physician and medical lecturer at various Petersburg institutions. It was no sinecure: the hospital doctor had to visit each patient twice a day, determine their medicines and other care and explain their cases to surgeons and students. He was also responsible for ensuring that the hospital had the necessary drugs and had to be on standby for difficult operations.

Johann Hanhart (1704 - 1739) of Winterthur taught at the Admiralty hospital in Petersburg. Since the city had no medical officer at the time, Hanhart was one of those whom the city called upon to deal with special cases, like violent deaths or the outbreak of infectious diseases. Hanhart also began work on the text to an important anatomical handbook for medical students, but died before he completed it.

Not all doctors worked in hospitals. Some were attached to noble families; Apollinari von Albin (1771 - 1830) of Tersnaus in canton Graubünden was even granted the title of personal physician to the tsar Alexander I, although in fact he did not act in this capacity.

At the other end of the social scale as far as patients were concerned, Heinrich Attenhofer (1783 - 1856) of Sursee worked with the poor of Petersburg - possibly in the official capacity of city medical officer, which was a relatively well-paid position. His duties included inspecting public places ranging from taverns to markets as well as checking on the work of police doctors and taking measures to deal with plagues. His work gave him a privileged view of the way of life of all strata of Petersburg society, which he described in his "Medical Topography." After his return to Switzerland he continued to work to improve the lot of the poor there.

A later doctor and social reformer who made a great contribution to the health of St Petersburg (and subsequently Moscow) was Friedrich Erismann (1842 - 1915), of Aarau. He had studied medicine in Zurich with the Russian Nadezhda Suslova, the first woman ever to be admitted to a degree at a modern European university. The couple married in 1868, and travelled together to Petersburg in 1869. (They divorced in 1883.)

Erismann started work as an eye specialist, but soon became interested in public health and the conditions of the poor. His three volume "Health manual" appeared in 1872-5, and he subsequently published "Health for all" in six languages.

In 1878 he was invited to Moscow, where he continued similar research and taught at the university. (Chekhov - better known as a playwright, but also a qualified doctor - was among his students, and greatly admired him.) His work in both cities included attempts to improve the water quality and to ensure food standards.

In 1896, after expressing support for some revolutionary medical students Erismann was forced - much against his will - to give up his position in Russia. He settled in Zurich, where he was elected to the city council and headed that city's public health department until his death.


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