Clare Griffin

Researcher’s profile



The Production and Dissemination of Medical Knowledge at the Russian Court, 1630s-1710s.

In the seventeenth century the medical needs of the Russian court were tended to by the Apothecary Chancery, the court’s medical department, which consisted of foreign medical practitioners and Russian administrators. This department provided medical care for the tsar and his family, courtiers, and also more lowly servicemen, such as soldiers. As well as treating patients, the Apothecary Chancery was also called upon to provide expert medical knowledge. The nature of and form in which this knowledge was produced changed over the course of the century, as the priorities of the court evolved.

From the 1630s to the 1660s the Apothecary Chancery primarily produced reports on diseases, deaths, and medical supplies. Reports on diseases were produced as a part of patient treatment, particularly in cases when treatment was not proceeding as successfully as had been hoped. Deaths were investigated when it was feared that the cause was contagious disease. Medicines and their ingredients were written about in order to guide purchasing. These earliest extant Apothecary Chancery reports facilitated communication between medical experts and administrators about Chancery business.

The Apothecary Chancery significantly expanded across the seventeenth century as demand for its services, especially from the army, increased. The preferred method of recruitment of medical staff was via diplomatic contacts with other courts, but this method could not provide the numbers of staff required, and so other avenues had to be explored. This shift in the methods of recruitment led to concern over the quality of medical practitioners. From the 1650s onwards the Chancery produced increasing numbers of reports on medical practice and medical practitioners, examining prospective staff members, investigating the activities of both Chancery and non-Chancery medical practitioners. The Apothecary Chancery also became more concerned with the regulation of harmful substances, including medicines, poisons, and also potions. Apothecary Chancery medical practitioners examined the herbs found in the possession of those suspected of selling illegal medicines, poisoning, or witchcraft. In the second half of the seventeenth century the Apothecary Chancery produced knowledge to facilitate the regulation of medical practice and related concerns.

From the 1670s continuing into the 1700s Apothecary Chancery medical practitioners produced medical recipe books. Based on Western chemical medicine, these works were aimed at a range of audiences. The first such work was produced for Russian medical students being trained by the Apothecary Chancery, but later works were designed for use by royal patrons, ordinary householders, and soldiers. During the same period the first private apothecary shops were established, and so it was in the interests of these apothecaries, who had close links to the Apothecary Chancery, to promote the use of pharmaceutical medicines through encouraging the acquisition of basic medical knowledge by laypersons. During the course of the seventeenth century knowledge produced in the Apothecary Chancery moved from being informational, to regulatory, and finally to educational, reducing the distance between the medical expert and the layperson.

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