Linking Germany and the Baltic States through the History of Medicine
Michael Pohar is a full-time student at Rīga Stradiņš University (RSU) currently in his 8th semester. He is simultaneously a doctoral student at the Heinrich Heine University (HHU) in Düsseldorf writing his academic medical doctoral thesis (Dr. Med. Thesis). Some students choose to start writing these theses already during their studies, rather than waiting to graduate, as with other academic degrees.
Michael left for Germany when the COVID-19 restrictions became tighter, but is still keeping up with his studies and his research remotely.
What is it like studying at two universities?
Studying at two universities requires a lot of organisation and is, of course, quite time-consuming. I travel frequently between Riga and Düsseldorf, and I go to a lot of conferences to get in touch with others in this field. Every time I visit HHU is exciting, because I always meet new people and exchange ideas with German medical or humanities students.
How are the two universities different?
I think the main difference is their size. It is possible to meet students from many other academic fields in Düsseldorf due to how big HHU is. Studying at RSU is much more personal, but I have noticed that work processes, problems, and questions are the same everywhere.
How did you go about choosing the topic of your thesis?
I had been offered study places in Germany after my second year at RSU, but I decided to stay in the Baltics because it is so, so interesting for me there. It's so different - partially it's the same, but partially super different. Since I decided to stay, I started looking for a topic, for something that I am personally interested in, and something I can do in my free time. I just started brainstorming from there.
In addition to the topic of medicine, I am very interested in history, because this is the only way to explain relationships in today's world.
For me as a German student in Latvia, it is particularly interesting to learn the history of my new home.
My focus soon turned to the history of medicine in the Baltic States, because it is particularly interesting and also has a strong German connection.
You mention that the Baltic States feel familiar in a way, but also different. Could you elaborate on that?
What's different is, first of all, the mentality. The Baltic people open up in a different way - my experience so far is that you need to get to know someone first before they open up to you. This is one point which makes it quite different. In Germany we have different problems and attitudes. I started thinking about why it is like this, and because I'm interested in the historical approach I am trying to look back and find explanations for why it came to be this way.
Could you give a brief outline of the topic you have selected?
There is an ongoing research project at the Institute of History, Theory and Ethics of Medicine at HHU, which is led by Prof. Nils Hansson. This project analyses the history of Nobel Prize nominees in medicine from several countries, such as the US, Canada, Switzerland, Austria, and Germany. I joined the project to cover the history of the Nobel Prize in the Baltic States.
To be specific, I work with the history of the Nobel Prize in the Baltic States and Germany during the first half of the 20th century. In that period Baltic German professors were very active at the University of Dorpat (now the University of Tartu, Estonia).
The way I am writing my thesis is by publishing a series of articles. My first article was about pharmacology. Pharmacology as a subject was actually founded in the Baltic States. It is also an angle that had so far not been highlighted within the Nobel Prize project.
We are looking at the people who have been nominated but not received the prize. Nomination letters are blocked for 50 years according to the last will of Alfred Nobel. Right now the archives for the years 1901-1953 are available. Newer nomination letters are not available to prevent researchers from advertising that they've been nominated for the Nobel Prize. I look through the letters I have access to, then among those look for pharmacologists. I've forgotten how many thousands of nominates I've read through! Maybe 5000?
I've also been researching the founder of modern Pharmacology, which is how he's referred to in mass media. His name was Oswald Schmiedeberg and he was a Baltic German born in Kurzeme who attended the University of Dorpat.
I've been looking at what made him so special, what was said about him in the press, and how his “excellence” was described.
Michael (on the left) at Trakai Island Castle on a trip trough the Baltics. Photo from private archive.
Tell me about the background of pharmacology.
Before pharmacology was established, it was referred to as materia medica, and that was only chemistry and drug-related topics. What Schmiedeberg did was to place the patient at the center, and to include the patient in the process. All of this happened in Estonia, in Dorpat.
Is the fact that the field was established in the Baltic States reflected in the nominations or wins? Or was he the only one to stand out?
Specialisations in medicine developed around 1900. Before this, there had been surgeons and a few internal medicine doctors, but there was no separation into more focused specialities. Schmiedeberg created one of these smaller specialties. Even back then professors traveled around and taught at various universities. So Schmiedeberg traveled from Estonia to the university of Strasbourg making stops at several other universities in between. Around 1900 Strasbourg was one of the, or maybe the educational center of Europe. He educated a lot of people there, so he really multiplied his approach and knowledge in pharmacology. And this is then reflected in the nominations for the Nobel Prize as many of his students were nominated as well.
What is it about the nominees that is interesting to you, rather than just looking at the winners of the Nobel Prize?
I focus on prizes as a parameter for the origins of the concept of excellence. The key questions in our project are:
How is excellence and prestige in medicine defined and produced? How was a scholar's reputation depicted in the context of the Nobel Prize? What does it mean when someone is nominated for the Nobel Prize once versus several times? And more generally: What are the motives and functions of prizes?
Schmiedeberg was nominated 18 times, as far as I can remember, and there have been scholars nominated more than 50 times in the pharmacological field.
We then publish our results in a renowned pharmacological journal and have thus created the basis for further research in this field.
What are some conclusions you've drawn or patterns you've identified?
The first thing that jumps out is that it's mostly old white men who receive nominations. I'm highlighting that at this time there were no female nominees, or laureates of the Nobel Prize in pharmacology.
How do you conduct your work practically? Do you have to travel to different archives, or is it all digital now?
It's quite difficult, but I am very lucky to have Prof. Juris Salaks, Asst. Prof. Ieva Lībiete and Prof. Hansson in my network. Prof. Hansson currently lives in Düsseldorf, but he's Swedish, so his home university is Lund University in Sweden, and he has strong connections to the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm where the Nobel Prize archive is located. Since they are quite well known in their fields, especially Prof. Salaks and Prof. Hansson, they have a big network. As soon as you say that they're your supervisors, other researchers give you access immediately.
Michael (fifth from the left) giving a presentation at the 10th International Pharmaceutical Conference, Science and Practice 2019, in Kaunas. Photo from private archive.
Then I have my own network that I'm working on establishing. This is why it's important for me to go to these conferences. I was scheduled to go to the Nobel Prize archives in Stockholm, but this has, of course, been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. There, I would most likely have done “basement research”. Basically you have to use all available channels: the mail, going in person, and also electronically.
What is it like looking through all this old information?
The literature I'm accessing has not been touched for many, many years. This makes me understand that the field I have chosen is unique and something new.
As you can maybe see or hear, I have chosen to take a humanities approach. I have to write a lot. This is not very typical for a medical student. I have to read a lot of literature on sociology, and this is something where you can see that your work is unique. This is the cool feeling about it.
Prof. Salaks describes you as someone with a lot of energy and drive. Where do you find the passion for your subject?
This is very nice to hear. I believe that you can only be successful with a project if you can stand behind it completely. In my case, I was able to turn my hobby, my interest in medical history, into my "work".
I can also definitely say that I get excellent care and support from my supervisors Prof. Salaks, Prof. Hansson and Prof. Lībiete which makes my work so much easier.
Can you describe what it's like in Germany now? What is it like working in a German hospital right now?
At the moment I'm working as a nurse in a COVID-19 intensive care unit, so on the front lines. My shifts are approximately 8-10 hours a day. The rest of the time I either do my university work which is possible because of remote teaching, or, like today, I have a day off, or I spend time on my research.
What is the atmosphere in the hospital among the staff?
I'm 500km away from my home town at the moment, close to the Swiss border. It's a university hospital. They're well-provided with equipment here and have everything they need. There are enough masks, disinfectant and all those things. While it is, of course, a strange situation and a new atmosphere for everyone so far we are not at the end of our capacities. There are more than enough ventilators left. It's kind of happy and tragic at the same time - you see people die, but you also see people leaving the hospital.