Institute of Experimental Medicine, St Petersburg


A review of The Institute of Experimental Medicine (Научноисследовательный институт экспериментальной медицины) (St. Petersburg).

In November of last year, I had the opportunity to visit a small but well-equipped research institute in St. Petersburg, the Institute of Experimental Medicine. Formerly known as the Imperial Institute of Experimental Medicine, the medical center was built in 1890 by a distant relative of the Tsar, Prince Aleksandr Oldenburgskii, in response to a series of devastating cholera epidemics in the Russian Empire and rumors of an outbreak of plague in China. The IIEM lies just north of the city center between the Petrogradskaia and Chkalovskaia metro stations.

Although the IIEM exists under the auspices of the Russian Academy of Sciences, it lacks the classical aura of the Academy’s counterparts in other parts of Russia. The name of this institute evokes images of mad scientists and secret laboratories, and to some degree imagination is not far from the truth. When plague broke in Russia soon after the institute’s establishment, a secret IIEM laboratory was built at Kronstadt, where scientists lived and died experimenting on animals and, in some cases, on themselves. The entrance is flanked by busts of medical legends: Louis Pasteur, Il’ia Mechnikov, and Ivan Pavlov, to name a few. The maze of buildings houses vast collections of texts not just in Russian, but also in Persian, Arabic, Chinese, Sanskrit and Tibetan. This library is unique in that it holds hundreds of thousands of books, manuscripts, photographs and medical records from the past four hundred years, coupled with cutting-edge contemporary medical journals and books on modern disease for St. Petersburg’s current medical students.

For historians working on projects related to medicine, technology, demography and the sciences in a historical context, I cannot overstress the necessity to visit this secret treasure trove of information. My own dissertation is a study of imperial management and disease control in Russia’s southern borderlands, and this research center seemed prodigiously inviting when I first read its description in the Russian archive database. However, the brief outline on the internet does the IIEM little justice, and one must visit the center in person to see the richness of its library and archive. My own interest lay in the collections on microbiology and epidemiology from the turn of the century. Ultimately, I encountered more than one hundred documents that covered the broader themes of my dissertation.

There is another reason to visit the IIEM: it is comfortable for the foreign academic in Russia. The most noticeable features of this institute are the complete absence of the formalities and red tape that typically color research endeavors in Russian institutions. I had assumed that my first day at the library would have been exhausting and fruitless, as having just learnt about the IIEM, I had not brought a letter addressed to the director from my university. On a lark, I sauntered in with only my passport and registration and apologized profusely for my lack of an official letter. The librarian at the front desk smiled sweetly, took my passport, jotted something down on a piece of paper and within thirty seconds I was made aware that I now had a research card. Thirty seconds of registration and I was comfortably sitting at a desk and looking through the card catalogs.

This is not a widely used library, and so I was often the only researcher in the library reading room. The director of the IIEM library, Tat’iana Smirnova, is a courteous woman who promptly invited me for tea and cookies in the library lounge when she saw me sitting alone at my desk. She explained the history of the institute, ranging from information readily available on the website to insider anecdotes that had been passed along to her by word of mouth. Smirnova also introduced me to the director of the IIEM museum, Iurii Golikov, who insisted that I accompany him to the historical site for a personal tour. In the adjoining museum, I walked through dim yet airy rooms and saw the past unfold in front of my eyes through old photos, decrees, and laboratory equipment. At the end of the tour Golikov bestowed on me a gift of several books on the history of the IIEM, a generous offer that has never been given to me in other archives and libraries.

The actual process of conducting research in this library is also relatively painless. The reading room at the IIEM has a thematically organized card catalog. Most of my documents were found under “plague,” “cholera,” and “malaria.” A student researcher may order as many documents at a time as he or she wishes, and those that are available are brought to the library reading room in less than fifteen minutes. Photocopying costs one ruble per page, but digital reproduction of documents with a camera is free. Suffice it to say, I returned from the IIEM with hundreds of pages of useful material including copies of photographs, accounts of Russian scientific expeditions to the Far East and Central Asia and medical records from the nineteenth century. I was also able to photograph some of the older manuscripts in Persian and Sanskrit free of charge. The only strict rule at the IIEM reading room is a reasonable one: a researcher cannot eat or drink near any of the old manuscripts or books.

The Institute of Experimental Medicine is open Monday through Friday from 10 am to 5 pm, and there are several cafes, cafeterias, and restaurants on Pavlov Street, only five minutes away from the library. As an added note, should one wish to take a break from hours of reading of medical tomes, there are beautiful sidewalks in the area lining the Institute’s grounds and the River Neva.

Anjali Vithayathil
Ph.D. Candidate
Department of History
Indiana University, Bloomington

Image: Ivan Pavlov, Nobel Prize in Physiology 1904. Official Nobel Prize Photo. Wikimedia Commons.

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