Geoepidemiology, Chemistry, and Culture: The Environmental Approach to Cholera in Russia, 1892-1905

Presented February 15, 2013 at the Center for Historical Research, Department of History at The Ohio State University by John Davis, CHR Junior Faculty Fellow.

This paper argues that Russian physicians' environmental approach to cholera was based upon the country's particular geographic circumstances, the training of its physicians, and the complex sociocultural makeup of the Tsarist Empire. With broad borders and coastal areas adjacent to places where cholera was semi-endemic, and sitting directly in the path of major conduits of travel between the Far East and Europe, the nation was particularly vulnerable to cholera carriers. Russian physicians considered it unlikely that they could prevent cholera from crossing their borders. Many of them were trained in the research schools of the Parisian, Louis Pasteur, and the Munich Professor of Hygiene, Max von Pettenkofer. Both men were originally chemists and concentrated on germ-environment interactions. Russian physicians were therefore highly skeptical of the "contagionist" principles that Berlin's Robert Koch endorsed. Forced to deal with an uneducated population and border peoples from different religions and cultures, early attempts at applying quarantine and other contagionist measures caused cholera riots. Tsarist, and later Soviet, physicians developed a unique reactive system relying on quick response and a broad array of measures designed to undermine the conditions that bred epidemics.


The Ohio State University Center for Historical Research in the Department of History provides a stimulating intellectual environment for studying important historical issues around the world. Each year the Center brings together scholars from various disciplines to examine issues of broad contemporary relevance in historical perspective.