Revolution in medicine: Ukrainian-led medical revolution: Nestor Ambodik and Russian Empire

21:27 Nov. 20, 2016

Ukrainian-led medical revolution: Nestor Ambodik and Russian Empire

Nestor Maksymovych Ambodik (photo by kp.ua)

Ukrainian historian and diplomat Dmytro Ishchenko on the story of the founder of obstetrics and pediatric medicine in the Russian Empire

Ukraine's history, as observation tells us, is very distant from pleasant simplicity. It cannot be recited as a typical uninterrupted narrative begun by the hymns to the glory of the nation's archaic roots and continued with the catalogue of its subsequent triumphs. Just as in many other cases, if not all, the presentation of this sort would be somewhat misleading. The fates of those who were born on Ukrainian soil depended on political entanglements, economic intricacies, and scientific developments far beyond their native country. Often enough, that dependence destined its victims to play a decisive part in social life – a phenomenon one may see in the biography of Nestor Ambodik, the founder of obstetrics and pediatric medicine in the Russian Empire.  

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Nestor Maksymovych Maksymovych, known as Nestor Ambodik (1744-1812), Doctor of Medicine, professor, writer, translator, expert in heraldry, and a promoter of the Enlightenment in Eastern Europe (Source: www.history.org.ua). He was the son of a priest, Maksym Maksymovych, a scion of an impoverished branch of a distinguished Cossack family, whose members performed a notable role in political and military affairs of the 17th-18th centuries. The pseudonym ‘Ambodik' comes from the Latin phrase ‘ambo dic' (‘say twice') – a reference to the fact that Nestor's paternal name (bound to be used in Eastern European polite society) and his surname were almost identical.  

The future physician was born on this day, the 18th of November,1744, in a village near Poltava, one of the key administrative centres in the then Cossack Hetmanate. His father, Maksym Maksymovych, was a Christian Orthodox priest and a great proponent of education. Inspired by the ideas heralded in the family, Nestor entered the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy to study philosophy, rhetoric, and theology. Quite successfully dabbling in poetry, he soon came up with the nom de plume ‘Ambodik', which later became his professional name.

Read also Kyiv-Mohyla Academy: drama and mysteries of an old European University

The governmental apparatus established by the Empress of Russia Catherine II desperately needed well-educated staff, and it meant that the Academy's graduates were in high demand. Having finished his philosophical studies in 1768, Maksymovych-Ambodik found employment as a clerk of the so-called All-Russian Legislative Commission – an agency that was to prove Catherine's devotion to ‘enlightened absolutism'.

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A session of the All-Russian Legislative Commission. A painting by Matvey Zaytsev (1880-1940). (Source: Wikipedia)

His evident talents, scrupulosity, and a newly found interest in what became known as public healthcare allowed the young bureaucrat from Ukraine to enter the department of medicine at the Moscow University and, in a few months, the Saint-Petersburg Military School for Surgeons.        

As one of the most outstanding students, Ambodik was sent to the University of Strasbourg – the institution celebrated for its curriculum in diverse medical disciplines. The descendant of Cossack gentry and Orthodox clerics became a diligent trainee in obstetrics, although his much-acclaimed dissertation bore the title ‘On Human Liver'.  

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Princess Ekaterina Dmitrievna Golitsyna (1720–1761), née Cantemir, a portrait by Louis-Michelle van Loo (1707-1771) (Source: Wikipedia). The Princess was a notable member of the Empire's aristocracy who bequeathed large funds to send talented students abroad. It was this woman's will that allowed Ambodik to study in Strasbourg and then make a scholarly tour through Germany.

After the return to Saint-Petersburg in 1776, the new Doctor of Medicine started the very bright career as a practicing physician and a professor at medical schools. In both capacities he achieved the accomplishments, which deserve a far more detailed review than the one that is offered here. 

Read also The only Ukrainian recipient of a Victoria Cross: unusual story of war hero

The magna opus, for which Doctor Ambodik gained international renown, was published in 1780s as ‘The Art of Midwifery, Or the Science of Midwives' Affairs'. A couple years earlier, he began teaching obstetric medicine in Russian, having transformed the previously theoretical courses into a comprehensive process with significant practice. His instructions, especially those that concerned the mother's health and public hygiene, mark the beginning of modern approach to giving birth in the lands that were controlled by the Russian Empire.   

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The titular page of ‘The Art of Midwifery, Or the Science of Midwives' Affairs'. (Source: www.ukurier.gov.ua). Ambodik invented a number of instruments for this particular field of medicine. At the same time, he advocated natural process of giving birth, preferably without any tools.

Ambodik's other specialties included pharmacology, pediatrics, and phytotherapy. The latter reportedly formed the basis for his very friendly relations with the Empress, at whose pleasure the learned doctor served as a personal medic. On top of making sure that the sovereign is fit to rule, he prepared anti-aging herbal scrubs for Her Majesty's face and body. The results turned out to be so effective that other grand ladies followed the trend, having renounced the older insalubrious practices in cosmetics and skin treatment.    

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One of Ambodik's books on phytotherapy dedicated to Catherine II (1783). (Source: www.vnikitskom.ru). 

The impressive number of books written, translated, and edited by Nestor Ambodik mirrors his contribution to the progress of general medicine, healthcare politics, medical ethics and the adjustment of medical terminology to the languages of Eastern Europe.  

Despite the lasting relationship with Catherine, he never attempted to join the ranks of the rich and the powerful. Emperor Alexander I, however, took every chance to demonstrate his respect to the famous medical man and granted him the civil servant's rank equivalent to that of brigadier general. After a few almost obscure years, Nestor Ambodik died in 1812, at the time of Napoleon's invasion to Russia, a month before the battle of Borodino.

Read also Russian Orthodox Church and long tradition of clerical espionage

Ambodik's biography, one may safely say, belongs to the brightest stories of those numerous Ukrainians that left their mark in history. Perhaps, in our day, this particular example will motivate some empathic individuals to serve the public in their own countries or, even better, throughout the worldwide commonwealth of people. Such motivation should definitely prevent any possibility of a dull life.   

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A book on heraldry edited by Nestor Ambodik. The publication of 1811. (Source: Wikipedia).

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