"Medicine…….. is my lawful wife,
but literature ………..is my mistress.
When I get tired of one,
I spend the night………. with the other.
It’s a little irregular,
but…life is a little more interesting …this way.”
These words were spoken
by a famous Russian author
.... see if you can guess his name…..
who was born in 1860
and who died of Tuberculosis
at the age of 44…..in 1904.
As the quote suggests,
he was a man whose life
was ….devoted to Medicine,
but….who was at the same time
was consumed by Literature.
One of his most famous plays
was called The Cherry Orchard.
His name was…. ….Anton Chekhov,
and this evening I want to tell you
a little about his interesting life.
Chekhov began his medical studies
at the Moscow University Medical School in 1879.
While he was a student there
to support himself and his family
he wrote hundreds of short stories.
So, by the time he had graduated in 1884
he was a well-known writer
and a regular contributor
to the St. Petersburg daily newspaper.
But …in 1890, Anton Chekov’s brother
died ..of Tuberculosis.
This had a big effect
on the young doctor-writer Anton.
He became depressed.
He was fed up with Moscow.
He no longer even enjoyed
seeing his works in print.
Chekhov decided to make
the difficult 8000-km journey
from Moscow, across Siberia
to the island of Sakhalin,
which was a remote
Russian prison colony
where 10,000 convicts ..and political prisoners
lived in frozen exile.
The conditions in the Siberian prisons
were extremely harsh….. Sakhalin was a good example…
These prisons were often used
by the Czar of Russia
to punish his political enemies .
Chekov felt that he could somehow
“pay off some of his debts to medicine”…
(as he put it)
if he wrote a couple of hundred pages
about life in the Sakhalin island prison.
To do this Chekhov became
a sort of self appointed
public health physician at the prison…….
He conducted a medical census of the convicts.
He investigated their living conditions.
He collected mortality statistics.
And after he had done all of this research
he then wrote a detailed description
of the very bad conditions at the prison.
He published this as a book,
entitled, not very originally….
The Island of Sakhalin.
When it was published,
it did prompt an official investigation
into life in the prison
but when Chekov presented it
as his doctoral thesis
at the Moscow Medical School
it was rejected by the Dean ,
who said it was "too sociological".
By the next year, 1891,
Chekhov was back living in the Moscow region.
He started a general medical practice
in the village of Melikhova
which was 80 km south of Moscow.
Patients were poor…..they came by foot or cart
from as far as 50 km away
to see the new doctor.
They would start to line up
in front of the clinic at dawn
Because they were poor,
they bartered for their medical care.
Dr. Chekhov kept very careful records,
he dispensed free medicine,
and he made 576 house calls
in less than six months. ….100 per month.
Now there was an epidemic of cholera
raging in the region at the time,
and in July 1891 Chekhov was appointed
the official ….district public health officer
to help get the epidemic under control.
In two months
he saw almost 1000 cholera patients.
and by the time the epidemic subsided
with the arrival of winter,
Chekhov was left totally exhausted.
the young doctor’s early experiences
1. of the prisons of Siberia, and
2. of the epidemic in southern Russia
had a very big impact on his work as a writer.
Ultimately, he wrote almost 400 short stories
and 6 full-length plays
which were often based on his own experiences
in these two very different settings.
Doctors ……often appear as characters
in Chekhov’s writing.
As physicians, these characters
were often protrayed as being less than ideal…
They had serious issues.
Dr. Lvov….. misses cases of TB, and depression.
Dr. Dorn….. is burnt out …after 30 years of practise in the country.
Dr. Chebutykin ….is an alcoholic failure.
These people….are examples of
flawed human beings…
who are typical of characters
who often appear in Chekhov’s writing.
Doctor Chekhov himself was not a well man.
He started coughing up blood
while he was still at medical school.
This got worse when he was at Sakhalin Island
and as he practised in Melikhova
He became more ill with time.
It must have been obvious to him
what was wrong,
but he called it the “flu”, if anybody inquired
kept on working,
and he refused medical treatment until 1897
by which time he was very sick indeed.
Of course, there was no effective drug treatment
for TB at that time.
so Chekhov went for a Rest cure,
….(that was the Standard of Practise for TB treatment then)…
at a Tuberculosis Centre
in Yalta on the Black Sea.
But , of course
instead of resting when he arrived there
Chekhov threw himself into more feverish work,
this time on a fund raising campaign
for a new TB Sanatarium for Yalta.
and as well, while he was there,
on this supposed rest cure,
he wrote three of his masterpiece plays
…one of which was The (famous) Cherry Orchard..
After 6 years in Yalta,
and against his doctor’s advice
(apparently Chekhov himself was a flawed character)
he returned to Moscow
in December 1903,
with his wife, Olga, who was an actress.
The following month, in January 1904
The Cherry Orchard was staged
at the reknowned Moscow Art Theatre
in celebration of Chehkov’s 44th birthday.
The evening was a great triumph
for him personally.
Shortly after that, the Chekhovs
returned again to Yalta
His illness was worsening,
and they wanted to get more treatment.
However, six months later,
at 3 a.m. on July 15, 1904.
Chekhov finally succumbed to his disease.
His body was shipped to Moscow
by train in a refrigerated car
which was marked "For Oysters."
This was rather ironic, because
Chekhov’s last words
before he died had been,
"I haven't had champagne for a long time."