The history of homeopathy in the Russian Empire
until World War I, as compared with other European countries and the USA: similarities and
by Alexander Kotok, M.D.
On-line version of the Ph.D. thesis improved and enlarged
due to a special grant of the Pierre Schmidt foundation.
1.2.2 The Cholera years
The events of the early 1830s won homeopathy new and very important adherents from among the
[When] the Medical Council was discussing the methods of protecting medicine from
the heresy [i.e., homeopathy], a terrible scourge occurred in Russia. For a long time there had
been rumors about some unknown disease, rapidly advancing to our frontiers from the East. [...].
This was Cholera asiatica, Cholera morbus - a disease about which physicians had had no idea,
whilst people were dying in thousands22.
These were indeed terrible events, which developed in 1830—31. The Russian Empire was the
first European country faced with and cruelly attacked by an epidemic disease whose origins, causes
and possible methods of treatment were absolutely unknown. Never before had both Russian medicine
and the Russian government found themselves to be so powerless.
The first pandemic began in Russia in 1823 and reached its greatest intensity in
1830 and 1831. When the peak of the epidemic passed, more than a quarter of a million of the
Tsar's subjects had died, and the overall mortality among those stricken stood just below 50
per cent. The cholera's influence, if not its immediate effect, permeated the Russian system:
recruiting for the army stopped, interior commerce came to a standstill, and quarantine regulations
strait-jacketed the nation. The people became restive; riots and rebellions broke out; and the
international crises of 1830—31, found the Russian economy and military so hampered in their
effectiveness that Chernyshev, then Minister of War, wrote to General
Dibich that the cholera 'places us in such a situation as never before
Neither Russian nor any other medicine had something real to propose against this disease. On
the contrary, the methods of contemporary treatment worsened the chances to recover.
The misfortune was that when the most distinctive symptoms appeared, and the
disease could infallibly be recognized, death was not far away. Nevertheless, the symptomatology
produced the treatment, and Russian physicians were told to administer large doses of calomel and
opium to control the spasmodic conditions, to bleed extensively if the cases were caught in the
early stages, and to use warm baths and clothing together with frictions and counter-irritants on
the skin to counteract circulation's failure and the deadly decline of vital powers. Where
improvement could be seen, carbonate of magnesia or cold-drawn castor oil were recommended to
provide a gentle laxative action24.
It is not a surprise that all the physicians' efforts were met with great hostility, whilst
physicians themselves were treated as poisoners25.
Russian landlords sought any available medicines to help their peasants. Some Russian landlords
used homeopathic drugs and reportedly found them especially helpful. One should stress the role of
the Russian landlord Semen Korsakov (1788—1853)26, probably the one single Russian
whose name has been known to the researchers of the history of world homeopathy, for his invention
of his own system of making homeopathic dilutions. The biographical sketch of Semen Korsakov and
the list of his writings may be found in rather detailed form in the paper by Vasily Deriker "Po povodu cholery. Materialy
dlia istorii gomeopatii v Rossii" (Regarding cholera. Documents on the history of
homeopathy in Russia) which had been published in "Zhurnal gomeopaticheskogo lecheniia",
1865, 6. This paper and later was reproduced almost in whole with some additions in the book of
shall limit myself to several main points. From his young age Semen Korsakov became distinguished
for his participation in the St. Petersburg people's volunteer corps in 1812—13 (he took
part in the battles of Berezina and Polotsk, then in the siege of Danzig, and was awarded the order
"pour le mérite militaire" by the King of Prussia). After the war he started
working as a statistician in the Ministry of Interior. According to Bojanus, this job did not
require his constant presence at his workplace. He thus had enough time to be interested in other
affairs, medicine for example. Till 1829, he had tried allopathy. Nevertheless, after having been
treated homeopathically by his relative called L'vov, a landlord of the Saratov province, for
rheumatism, he turned to homeopathy. "When he recognized the truth, he considered it to be his
duty [...] to support the spread of homeopathy within the wide public both by word and by
During many years Korsakov treated his peasants and all those who came from the neighboring
areas with homeopathy. He also tried to spread homeopathy among his relatives and friends. In 1830
and 1847, during the epidemics of cholera, he occupied a post of district inspector over local
cholera hospitals, collecting the statistics on different methods of treatment of cholera,
including, of course, the homeopathic one. Probably, he was the person who first told
Admiral Nicholas Mordvinov (1754—1845), an uncle of him and a member of the State Council,
about this new treatment.
The statistics dealing with homeopathic treatment of cholera in Russia during the epidemic of
1830, were received both from the landlords who treated their peasants with homeopathic medicines
and from homeopathic physicians. These landlords either had started practicing homeopathy before
the epidemic (L'vov and Korsakov) or had been attracted to practice it during the epidemic by
Drs. Adam and Herrmann. Admiral Mordvinov united the statistics he got from different regions of
Russia where lay homeopathic treatment of cholera was provided during 1830—31. According to
these statistics, from among 1273 persons who had been treated with homeopathic medicines, 1192
recovered and 108 died (i.e., the mortality rate was about 11%)29. Bojanus does not report the
statistics obtained from physicians. Leary refers to Korsakov (but without mentioning details of
the source) who cited Dr. Goldeberg (probably Goldenberg?); the latter "treated 1274 cases
with a 6% mortality in Orenburg in Russia"30. Leary refers also to an article by Francis Black, where the
statistics of Dr. Seider of Vyshny Volochok were published. According to these, the homeopathic
treatment provided 30,2% mortality, whilst the allopathic one provided 74.2% mortality and the
mortality rate for non-treated patients was 67.3%31. According to another source cited by Leary, the
"homeopathic" mortality rate in Russia in general was 22%32. Thus, the mortality rate provided by
the homeopathic treatment fluctuated according to different statistics from 6% to 30.2%, much lower
than 60-90% of the allopathic mortality rates reported from different Russian cities33.
Bojanus refers to the letters sent to Korsakov by his noble friends:
'Veratrum is the specific medicine against this disease. I lost no
choleric patient, whilst many recovered' (landlord Tulinov from the Tambov province);
'When cholera appeared in our locality, I became a doctor. Homeopathy brought
me real glory. In the nearby-situated villages I treated 480 persons, 364 recovered completely and
some others will probably become well. [...] Not only landlords but also doctors are coming to ask
me for instructions and medicines. [...]. My wife is preparing powders for whole days'
(landlord A. L'vov, Balashev district, Saratov province in June 1831).
'There is one educated lady, living in Saratov. [...]. After having read
Hahnemann's and of his followers' works, she dedicated herself to homeopathy. She has had
such a success [...] that she has attracted the attention of many local physicians [...]. This
woman treated cholera with excellent results' (landlord D. I. Adam)34.
A daughter of Admiral Nicholas Mordvinov, Countess N. N. Mordvinova wrote in her memoirs:
By the time of the cholera's appearance in Moscow in 1830, we had already
known from the letters of our [relatives] L'vovs and Korsakovs from the Moscow and Saratov
provinces that homeopathic treatment of this epidemic is especially useful. They treated their own
peasants and many others from the suburbs. Some of the neighbors followed their example. This
successful treatment filled the peasants with confidence, they were turning to us continuously for
help. The landlords were making rounds in the localities to visit patients, whilst their wives were
preparing the medicines according to the homeopathic system35.
Nevertheless, homeopathy was entirely neglected by the representatives of the regular medical
profession, who not only had had nothing to propose against the fatal malady but also put obstacles
to the use of homeopathy. Admiral Mordvinov wrote to Korsakov on July 1, 1831:
While the cholera is killing a lot of people, there has been a struggle between
the old medicine and the new one, and the former [i.e., allopathy] has made all efforts to stop the
successes of the latter [i.e., homeopathy]. [...]. Although the cholera is violent, the intrigues
of doctors of the old school - powerful, as their number prevails - have not allowed the delivery
of homeopathic medicines. Herrmann wrote me that he was forced to stop using homeopathic medicines
in a hospital, as all the patients he got were already agonizing, having received earlier
Four months later Mordvinov wrote to Korsakov again:
It has been reported in France that homeopathic medicines were reportedly used
against cholera in Russia, and were found to have no influence on this disease. This lie is the
result of the local doctors, who trembled when only hearing the word 'homeopathy'. One
should demonstrate the vileness of this statement. I am collecting evidences of the successful
treatment provided with homeopathic medicines in order to publish them in all metropolitan cities
Nobleman D. Adam of Moscow wrote to Korsakov: "Here, in Moscow, homeopathy has been
actively persecuted. Homeopathic doctors have practiced stealthily in order not to become a subject
of the mockeries of allopaths..."38.
While comparing the results of the homeopathic and the allopathic treatment at that period of
cholera in different countries, one may assert that homeopathy was doubtless preferable not only
over "scientific" allopathy (with its bloodlettings, calomel and purgatives), but also
over mere non-treatment. Allopaths in Russia (and in other countries as we shall see later) had
neither understanding of the essence of the disease nor any reliable medicine. Nevertheless, they
tried to blackmail and discredit homeopathic treatment.
It was also in 1831, that one doctor who had earlier converted to homeopathy, became entirely
and ardently zealous after he saw its advantages in the treatment of cholera. This was the Polish
physician Valenty Cherminsky (1800—1860), who graduated from Vilna University in 1821. He had
studied homeopathy and treated, reportedly39, with great success in Zhitomir (Ukraine) during the epidemic of
cholera in 1830—31. Having then already been for several years a devoted adherent to
homeopathy, Dr. Cherminsky practiced in the department to which he was attached, exclusively with
homeopathy, using his own medicines and not requiring any drugs from the hospital. During a period
of 24 days (after that Dr. Cherminsky fell ill and could not continue), 122 patients were received,
55 of them recovered, 1 died and 66 remained to be treated.
The [previous] four-years-long homeopathic experience of Dr. Cherminsky led him to
conclude that this new therapy, apart from [its main] direct benefit, is also able to render
service in an economic aspect. The many millions which are spent on treating and managing patients
by the allopathic method, could be decreased drastically when treating with homeopathy.
Furthermore, the number of those soldiers who are unfit for military service after having been
treated by regular medicine, would be reduced [if they would be treated with homeopathy]. Being
infatuated with the thought of common welfare, he decided to inform the government [about his
In October 1831 Cherminsky turned to the Minister of War (Count Chernyshev) with a private
project stressing that the expected benefit from homeopathy is enormous both in the saving of
finances and in the provision of cheap, mild, fast and reliable treatment. Moreover, Cherminsky
wrote that he was prepared to accept a management of a hospital of 100 beds, using only his own
Copyright © Alexander Kotok 2001
Mise en page, illustrations Copyright © Sylvain Cazalet 2001