Intended for healthcare professionals


Mark Borisovich Mirsky

BMJ 2010; 341 doi: (Published 25 August 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c4577
  1. Boleslav Lichterman

    Historian of Russian surgery who challenged Soviet ideology

    Professor Mark Mirsky was an internationally known historian of Russian medicine, surgery, and health care; a prolific writer and medical journalist; and head of the Moscow Scientific Society of Medical Historians.

    Journalistic activity had a strong impact on Mirsky’s scientific career. In a way he was the Russian counterpart of the late Roy Porter, a famous English medical historian (BMJ 2002;324:680, doi:10.1136/bmj.324.7338.680). Both were prolific journalists, and both suddenly died in traffic crashes. Nowadays most professional medical historians work in a narrow temporal and thematic framework. Mirsky was remarkable for his wide scientific interests. His many papers and monographs were dedicated to different periods of Russian medicine; Soviet health care; biographies of famous physicians and surgeons and Soviet ministers of health.

    October revolution

    After the collapse of Soviet regime in 1991 he started to research previously forbidden topics, such as Russian medical emigrants after the October revolution of 1917, Stalinist repression of doctors, and the impact of foreign physicians on Russian medicine and health care. For example, he wrote about Robert Erskine (1677-1719) of Scotland, who became the first Russian archiater and surgeon in ordinary to Peter the Great.

    But it was a history of surgery that was the core of Mirsky’s research. His Khrurgiya ot drevnosti do sovremennosti. Ocherki istorii (Surgery from Ancient Times to Present: Essays on History), published in 2000, is often considered his greatest work. It has almost 800 pages and covers a period from the Edwin Smith papyrus, thought to date from the 16th century before Christ, to modern heart surgery.

    His other major publication is Meditsina Rossii X-XX vekov. Ocherki istorii (Medicine in Russia from the Tenth to the Twentieth Centuries: Essays on History), published in 2005. Here Mirsky called for a new approach to the history of Russian medicine and new ways of studying the subject, devoid of ideological distortions. He was concerned by the present lack of interest in the history of medicine in Russia, the decreasing number of Russian medical historians, and the low standard of scholarship. For him medical history involved a study of the past to illuminate the present and lay the basis for future medical science and practice.

    Mirsky was born in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine. His parents worked in industrial microbiology and biochemistry; his father headed the factory, and his mother worked in a laboratory. During the second world war the production of vaccines and sera was extended and shifted to the eastern parts of the country. Therefore, in 1942 the family moved to Irkutsk in Russia, and a year later to Samara (at that time Kuibyshev), where Mark graduated from high school with a silver medal for excellent results. He then moved to Moscow to study medicine.

    Meditsynsky Rabotnik

    In 1954 Mirsky graduated from medical faculty of the Stalin Second Moscow State Medical Institute (now the N I Pirogov Russian State Medical University) and was assigned to Meditsynsky Rabotnik (now Meditsynskaya Gazeta), an official periodical of the Soviet Union’s Ministry of Health that had a circulation of about a million copies. Today it is an independent periodical for doctors, published twice a week with a circulation of about 50 000. He aspired to become a surgeon and for a while worked part time at a surgical department in Moscow as a house officer. Mirsky stayed at Meditsynskaya Gazeta until 1969, except for a three year PhD at the Semashko Institute from 1960 to 1964. His PhD thesis was dedicated to the impact of communist and medical periodicals on internal medicine and public health during the first years of the Soviet regime (1917-1920). He became a head of department and member of the editorial board. After he left the periodical he regularly contributed essays on medical history.

    Since 1969 Mirsky headed a group at the Institute for Organ and Tissue Transplantology (now the V I Shumakov Federal Scientific Centre for Transplantology and Artificial Organs). His habilitation thesis defended in 1981 was dedicated to a history of transplant surgery in Russia and was published as a book in 1985. The director of the institute wanted to put his name as the book’s coauthor, but Mark refused this request and had to leave. From 1985 he worked at the N A Semashko Research Institute for Social Hygiene and Healthcare (now the National Research Institute for Public Health), and from 1989 until his death he was a head of department for the history of medicine and health care at this institution.

    In 1990 Mirsky became a president of Moscow Scientific Society of Medical Historians. He was a member of the International Society for the History of Medicine and vice president of the Confederation of Medical Historians.

    Mirsky was a reserved person. Even those who worked together with him for many years knew nothing of his family or his political views. He enjoyed the company of smart women and was always dressed in style.

    Mirsky was a lifelong admirer of the writer Anton Chekhov. He kept Chekhov’s portrait in his office and published a book in 2003 on Chekhov as a physician. Mirsky and his wife died in a car crash while driving to their dacha near Moscow. Forensic examination was performed in a local hospital that bears a memorial plaque that Chekhov worked there as a physician after graduation from Moscow University in 1884.


    Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c4577


    • Mark Borisovich Mirsky, medical historian (b 1930; q Stalin Second Moscow State Medical Institute 1954), died in a car crash on 19 June 2010.

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