Several years ago, when reading the documents of the Apothecary Chancery, early modern Russia’s official medical department, I came across the following intriguing passage:
I pledge . . . not to spoil [patients’ health] with any kind of affair nor with any kind of cunning and not to give an evil herb or root . . . not to put unclean mumia nor any evil snake poison nor other poisonous animal nor reptile nor bird [nor] any evil and unclean compound that could harm health into medicines . . . to watch vigilantly over my colleagues in preparing all concoctions and in all measures which are created for their, the Tsar's, health so that they [my colleagues] do not put into [those] concoctions anything bad nor substitute an evil herb for a good.[i]
This phrase, part of a long and complicated oath new employees of the department had to swear in the early seventeenth century, expresses a scepticism on the part of Russian bureaucrats about the medicines their mostly Western European medical staff wanted to use.
Trying to work out the significance of this passage, I came to read up on the use of human remains, including the “mummia” powder made of mummified bodies, that was practiced in early modern Western Europe. There has been a lot written on this corpse medicine in Western Europe. Much less has been written about this topic in the context of the early modern Russian Empire. In fact, as I would go on to find, the extensive records of the Apothecary Chancery from the seventeenth century rarely mention mummy powder or other medicines based on human remains. When they do, it is to condemn the use of them.
This condemnation of what early seventeenth-century Russians seem to have seen as a weird fixation of the Western Europeans with human remains as medicaments changed by the end of the century. In 1693-94, the Apothecary Chancery received one of their semi-regular shipments of medical supplies from Hamburg; among the items purchased was ‘mumie’.[ii] By 1737, the successor to the Apothecary Chancery, the Medical Chancellery, regularly kept mummy powder in stock.[iii] Over the course of a century, official Russian medicine reversed its stance on corpse medicine.
This radical shift may have been linked to other developments in early eighteenth-century Russia. In 1718, the new capital of St Petersburg saw the opening of the Kunstkamera, a cabinet of curiosities collected by Peter the Great. That collection then contained, and still does, the anatomical remains of the Dutchman Frederik Ruysch. The Ruysch collection contains a number of human remains, in particular of foetuses and infants, many preserved in fluid, but several mummified. From its very beginnings, the Kunstkamera was open to the public, and so the residents of the new capital would have been able to view these preserved human remains, as modern-day visitors to the Kunstkamera, and its online collections, can do today.
How exactly do these two histories, of the status of mummy powder in official Russian medicines, and the place of human remains in the Kunstkamera, intersect? Did the rehabilitation of corpse medicine in late seventeenth-century Russia create a space for an anatomical museum? Were both developments the result of some other change? The extant documents do not speak to this directly. Yet it is notable that in this brief history of human remains in early modern Russia, Russians were first horrified, and later fascinated, by Western European practices regarding human remains.
Clare Griffin is a historian of early modern science and global exchanges, with a particular focus on the Russian Empire. She is an Assistant Professor at Nazarbayev University, Republic of Kazakhstan. You can find more of her work at www.claregriffin.org
[i] Translation my own. Apothecary Chancery oaths from the reign of Mikhail Fedorovich (r. 1613-1645), published in N. E. Mamonov, Materialy dlia istorii medistiny v Rossii, 4 vols (St Petersburg: M. M. Stasiulevich, 1881), i, p. 48-49.
[ii] Russian State Archive of Ancient Documents (RGADA) collection of the Apothecary Chancery, number 143, op. 2, ed. khr. 1513.
[iii] See for example Russian State Archive of Ancient Documents (RGADA) collection of the Medical Chancellery, number 346, book 1.9, pp. 67-68; book 1.7, pp. 585-v; book 1.7, pp. 588-v.
[iv] On Ruysch’s anatomical collections, see for example Knoeff, Rina. "Touching anatomy: On the handling of preparations in the anatomical cabinets of Frederik Ruysch (1638–1731)." Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 49 (2015): 32-44.