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BMJ. 2007 November 10; 335(7627): 998.
PMCID: PMC2071995

Mikhail Yakovlevich Yarovinsky

Medical historian who wrote a textbook on bioethics

Mikhail Yakovlevich Yarovinsky was a pioneer of medical humanities in the former Soviet Union (USSR). He launched a health education programme on television, organised a healthcare museum and one of the first courses on medical ethics and deontology, and wrote a dozen books, including the first Russian textbook on bioethics for medical students.

He was the fourth child in a humble Jewish family who escaped to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, from a small town near Poltava, Ukraine, during the hunger of 1933. The family survived because American relatives managed to send them some US dollars and a golden watch on a long chain. Dollars were exchanged for food, and fragments of golden chain were given as a bribe to get through multiple military cordons, hunger regions having been sealed off from the rest of the country.

Mikhail Yarovinsky was interested in literature, history, and cinema. He dreamt of becoming an actor. Only those who graduated from high school with a gold medal had a chance of entering the All-Union Institute for Cinematography in Moscow. He always had excellent grades but was expelled from school for fighting. Finally, he got his school certificate but was deprived of a gold medal. His relatives tried to console him with the fact that those with a red university diploma (given to those with excellent university grades) might also be able to study at the Cinema Institute. In the event, he decided to study at the place nearest to home: Tashkent Medical Institute.

As a fourth year student of the sanitary faculty of this institute, Yarovinsky created a health programme on Uzbek television—one of the first such programmes in the USSR. On graduation with a red diploma but by then a father and too old to study as an actor at the Cinema Instiitute (age limit 25), he worked at the department of health education of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic (UzSSR). He also studied by correspondence at the script faculty of the All-Union Institute of Cinematography, gaining a diploma in cinema and TV editing in 1967 and being taught by Mikhail Romm, a famous Soviet film director. In Tashkent Yarovinsky shot several medical documentaries.

In 1973 he organised the Museum of Healthcare of the UzSSR. There he taught a course on medical ethics and deontology for medical students (one of the first such courses in the USSR) and defended his kandidatskaya dissertation (PhD thesis) on the health culture of the Uzbek population.

In 1976 Yarovinsky was invited to Moscow to organise the All-Union Museum of Medical History in Moscow under the aegis of the Academy of Medical Sciences of the USSR. Unfortunately, it was not successful.

In Moscow he worked at the department of medical history at the Semashko Research Institute for Social Hygiene, Economy, and Healthcare Management (now the National Research Institute for Public Health). His doktorskaya (a second dissertation necessary for professorship similar to the habilitation thesis in Germany) in 1990 was on health care in Moscow during the Soviet period. This work is reflected in two of his books: Healthcare in Moscow, 1581-2000 (1988) and Centuries of Medical Moscow (1997) for the 850th anniversary of the city.

In 1992 Yarovinsky became a professor in the department of medical history and cultural studies at the Sechenov Moscow Medical Academy, establishing a course of medical ethics (bioethics) in 1994. His lectures frequently ended with students' applause and became the core of a textbook published in 2006. He developed a programme for teaching medical ethics to medical students covering 14 topics, each with a one hour lecture and three hours of seminars, and including 10 compulsory books—for example, The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy and Cancer Ward by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. He also compiled a “Practicum on Medical Ethics (Bioethics)” in four sections, consisting of about 500 problems encountered by medical practitioners and ethics committees, a reader, references to normative documents on medical ethics, and short comments. This awaits publication.

Yarovinsky's talent as a medical journalist is seen in his numerous publications in Russian medical periodicals. He wrote on Anton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy, Friedrich Schiller and Albert Schweitzer, Hippocrates and Maimonides, Nikolai Pirogov and Ivan Pavlov, Ilya Mechnikov and Ignaz Semmelweis, medical museums and medical oaths, and many other subjects. One of his heroes was Friedrich Haas (1780-1853), a German physician who worked in Russia as a prison doctor. Yarovinsky shared his motto, “Hasten to do good.”

An eternal worshipper of beauty, Yarovinsky admired life in all its manifestations, including nature, women, food, and literature. He was a master of pilaf (a traditional Uzbek dish), and the walls of the drawing room in his Moscow apartment were covered with legans (clay platters decorated with colored ornaments typical of Uzbekistan). He often missed Tashkent, especially during cold winters, but he recognised that if he had moved to Moscow earlier he would have achieved more: in Tashkent he had to write several dissertations for other people before he was allowed to defend his own kandidatskaya.

He is survived by his son, Mikhail, from his first marriage; four grandchildren; and his wife, Azaliya Vasilyevna Malakhova, an associate professor of hygiene at the Sechenov Moscow Medical Academy.

Mikhail Yakovlevich Yarovinsky, medical historian and ethicist, professor of the Sechenov Moscow Medical Academy, Moscow (b 1937, q Tashkent 1961; MD), died from repeated stroke on 16 September 2007.


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