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From which he died the Jewish king Herod, and told the writer Anton Chekhov

Posthumous consultation on the disease of the Jewish king Herod, appeared in 1892 in the Christmas issue of the newspaper “New time”. The author of the article was Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, for whom this work was a compromise between the “legal wife” and “mistress”.

“Disgusting disease”

Until his last day, a world-class writer remained primarily a doctor. It is not surprising, therefore, that among his literary works there is an article on the death of Herod – a posthumous consultation, compiled on the basis of written sources about the disease of the king of Judea. Chekhov wrote this note in a difficult financial period, guided by the desire to receive a fee, but the subject of research aroused great interest in the medical writer.

It is not easy to diagnose someone who will not be saved, and in addition, to do so on the basis of a single legend, recorded and rewritten many times, besides using outdated and unusual terminology. King Herod appears in the biblical texts as the ruler of Judea, who, having learned about the birth of Christ, but not being able to find out from the Magi his location, ordered to kill all male babies in Bethlehem and its surroundings. According to Orthodox sources, the number of victims was 14 thousand, according to Syrian – 64 thousand.

Historical sources containing information about the reign of Herod, are reduced mainly to the work of Josephus “Jewish antiquities”, a contemporary of the king, who does not mention the beating of babies. But his work contains a detailed description of the disease that had tormented the ruler for a long time: “he suffered from internal abscesses, especially the terrible pain in the stomach; his feet were filled with watery, clear liquid. The same disease befell his lower abdomen; worms appeared on the rotting parts; when he wanted to rise, the breath caused him terrible suffering, both because of the stench, and because of his difficulty; all he was seized with convulsions, and the king found unnatural strength.

Chekhov refers not only to the gospel, but also to the works of theophilactus, Archbishop of Bulgaria, who lived in the XI – XII centuries., as well as his contemporary, English theologian Frederic William Farrar, complementing and developing the studies of historical and religious character that became popular at that time.
In the description of king Herod Chekhov one can see the emotionality of the writer and a negative assessment of his personality – the patient caused “disgust and horror”, and his disease is called “disgusting”. Chekhov tells how, in his desire to escape from the pain, Herod ordered the execution of his eldest son. In fact, by order of the ruler were killed three of his offspring – Alexander, Aristobulus and Antipater, and learning about it, Emperor Augustus allegedly exclaimed: “Better to be a pig of Herod than his son!»

Chekhov as a diagnostician

Of course, it was difficult to count on an accurate diagnosis of the dictator, who died eighteen centuries before the publication of Chekhov’s article. The text contains only possible variants of diseases, among them scabies, leprosy, syphilis, which is mentioned somewhat florid, and what Chekhov called “the well-known lupus”, which is in fact a tuberculosis of the skin.

Such a retrospective diagnosis was a rather new phenomenon at the time of the publication of the article about the death of Herod, however, attempts to determine the cause of the disease from literary texts had already been made by one of Chekhov’s teachers G. A. Zakharin, taking up the analysis of the “Death of Ivan Ilyich” Tolstoy.

Other researchers continued the controversy over the cause of Herod’s death. A. A. PIASECKI, in his “Medicine in the Bible and Talmud” calls as the diagnosis of leprosy, Yang Churchman in 2002, the kidney disease with the complication of gangrene, V. A. Loginov in 2011 puts the cause of death leishmaniasis.

It is unlikely that Chekhov took up the writing of the article solely for material reasons. Contemporaries noted his constant desire to be aware of all the achievements of medical science, a thoughtful approach to the acquisition and study of professional literature, he constantly maintained communication with hundreds of fellow doctors. The practice of Anton Pavlovich was extensive – in addition to working as a County physician and voluntary participation in the elimination of the consequences of cholera in 1891-1892, he advised and treated everyone who sought help. “I know a lot of people, and therefore a lot of patients. Half have to be treated for nothing, the other half pays me five and three rubles,” he said in a letter.

During the career of the doctor Chekhov mastered almost all possible directions of medicine, among other things having visited and the Manager of Zvenigorod hospital. He served as a forensic physician, keenly interested in psychiatry, worked on a dissertation on the history of medical Affairs in Russia. Even the book “Sakhalin Island”, which was completed five years after Chekhov’s return from the trip, was, in fact, a medical work devoted to the conditions in which the convicts of the island lived.

Chekhov’s hypostasis in medicine

All Chekhov’s literary heritage is built on an impeccable understanding of human psychology, and in his first profession Anton Pavlovich paid special attention to the mental state of the patient. He also wrote humorous recipes: “dizziness can be stopped as follows: take two ropes and tie the right ear to one wall, and the left to the other, the opposite, so that your head “will be deprived of the opportunity to be dizzy.”

Due to the dislike of Chekhov to autographs, the only reliable way to get a souvenir signed by the writer, was to obtain from him the recipe – the results of which Chekhov-a doctor could not refuse

Due to the dislike of Chekhov to autographs, the only reliable way to get a souvenir signed by the writer, was to obtain from him the recipe – the results of which Chekhov-a doctor could not refuse

“Dr. A. P. Chekhov” – this inscription decorated the front door of his apartment. Even as a recognized master pen, medicine Chekhov called “wife”, and literature – “mistress.”

Chekhov could not cure himself – after a trip to Sakhalin in 1890, the writer’s tuberculosis worsened. He died in 1904 in the German Spa town of Badenweiler.

“Every night I Wake up and read “War and peace”… If I were near Prince Andrew, I would have cured him” – wrote Chekhov. If about Anton Pavlovich was a modern doctor with the current possibilities of treatment, probably the author of the “Cherry orchard” would also be able to continue to create masterpieces of literature for decades. But since history does not know the subjunctive mood, we have only to accept the events that have occurred, reserving the right to subject them to reflection and analysis, as Dr. A. P. Chekhov once did.

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