“Princess Gedroits, as she may rightfully be called, was an extraordinary figure – and yet today she is largely unknown in the West.” — Chris Baraniuk
Content warning for suicide
The impact that queer people have had on the history and continued growth of art cannot be overstated. Most people are quick to offer examples in the fields of fashion, fine art, even literature when discussing how queer people have shaped our culture. Less often noted are the contributions in the fields of science, mathematics, and medicine. People like Alan Turing, Magnus Hirschfeld, Florence Nightingale, Anna Freud, Alan Hart, and Jane Addams all had huge impacts on their respective fields. Vera Gedroitz joins that list as a doctor, professor, and the first female surgeon in Russia.
Born in 1870 in the Russian Empire, Vera Gedroitz was one of five children born to Lithuanian nobility. It is said that her little brother Sergei's death inspired her interest in medicine. She later wrote under the pseudonym Sergei Gedroitz.
Though she received high grades in school, she was expelled after her first stint in because she caused mischief for the teachers. While studying medicine in St. Petersburg, she became more and more sympathetic to the lower classes, eventually joining a small populist circle. She was arrested in 1892 and thrown out of St. Petersburg.
As she was no longer able to attend school in Russia, she chose a marriage of convenience. Though she was openly a lesbian, she married her close friend Nikolai Belozerov so she could attend school in Switzerland. There she continued studying to become a surgeon and graduated with perfect marks.
In 1900, she was forced to return to her birthplace of Slobodishche to help care for her family. She began working a physician at the Maltzov Cement Factory in the Kaluga Oblast. The only doctor in the area, she took care of not only the oft-injured and ill factory workers but also the rest of the village.
During her time there, she performed 248 operations including amputations, herniation repair, and bone setting. She noticed that poor working conditions were causing more health problems and wrote a list of recommendations, including proper hygiene and sanitation, providing washing tubs, and serving hot meals.
When she decided to try once more to work as a physician in Russia, she was forced to jump through many educational and social hoops to receive proper certification. All the while she was supporting her sick parents, working around the clock, and ending her relationship with her girlfriend. All of this and more led to a suicide attempt in 1903.
In 1904, Gedroitz volunteered to go to the front lines of the Russo-Japanese war with the Red Cross. Within the first month, she treated up to 1,255 patients and became known for her thorough care of a wide range of injuries. She was appointed Chief Surgeon of the hospital train and ignored standard protocol in favour of treating abdominal wounds. She became the first person to perform laparotomies on military patients. Because of her experience with abdominal surgeries and her quick response time, her success rate was quite high. Her work led to changes in recommendations in international medical journals to support her methods.
She later received the gold medal of diligence from the Order of Saint Anna, the Ribbon of Saint George with the silver medal for bravery, the three highest distinctions from the Russian Red Cross, and the silver neck medal of the Order of Saint Vladimir.
Upon divorcing her husband in 1905, she was able to reclaim her noble title and was able to publish 17 scientific papers between 1902 and 1909. She worked for some time in the Lyudinovskaya Hospital, making similar changes there. She got them white gowns, proper gloves, x-ray machines, and special garments for patients and their bed linens. During her time there she visited 125,363 patients and received a municipal commendation.
In 1909 the Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna invited Gedroitz to become the senior resident physician at the Tsarskoye Selo Court Hospital, making her the first female physician of the royal household. While working there she trained the Tsarina and her daughters to become nurses, even writing a textbook for them of medical information in laymen's terms.
It was during her time at the Tsarskoye Selo Court Hospital that she returned to a choice she'd embraced in childhood, wearing traditionally masculine clothing. She was open about her relationships with women. She also began writing, becoming a member of the Poets Guild and supporting young writers.
On May 11, 1912, she successfully earned her doctorate of surgery from the University of Moscow, becoming the first woman to do so. When World War I began in 1914, she trained nurses, including the Countess Maria Dmitrievna Nirod. She and the Countess fell in love and spent the rest of their lives together.
In 1917 the February Revolution began, and in an effort to remain neutral she left to become a military doctor again, soon rising to the rank of Chief Physician for the 6th Siberian Rifle Regiment. When she was injured in 1918, she moved in with Countess Nirod, and according to their neighbours they lived "as a married couple".
She was appointed as a professor of medicine in 1923 and went on to write papers and textbooks and attend surgical conferences. In 1930, the Soviet purges forced her to leave her position without pension. Together with Countess Nirod, she bought a house in the outskirts of Kiev. She continued writing and, though her early work did not receive the warmest response, these works were met with high praise.
Vera Gedroitz died in 1932 at the age of 61 from uterine cancer.
In remembering the life of Vera, let’s use the language of science: numbers.
125,363 patients visited during her time at the Lyudinovskaya Hospital
1,255 patients treated within the first month of the war
58 scientific papers published
18 years spent with the woman she loved
3 highest distinctions from the Russian Red Cross
1st female physician of the royal household
1st woman to earn a doctorate of surgery from the University of Moscow
All of this was accomplished after her suicide attempt in 1904.
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]
Aleh Dziarnovich: The first female surgeon is the Belarusian Princess Vera Gedroitz. (2016). UDF. Retrieved from https://udf.by/english/featured-stories/143357-aleh-dziarnovich-the-first-female-surgeon-is-the-belarusian-princess-vera-gedroitz.html
Bennett JD. Abdominal surgery in war—the early story. J R Soc Med. 1991 Sep;84(9):554–557.
Brown, K. (2008). Fighting Fit: Health, Medicine and War in the Twentieth Century. Stroud, UK: The History Press
Relearning in Military Surgery: The Contributions of Princess Vera Gedroits. University of Calgary. 2007 Mar; 159-167.
Rounding, V. (2012). Alix and Nicky: The Passion of the Last Tsar and Tsarina. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press