Salamieja Piĺštynova. Belarus-born adventuress as Dr. House of the 17th century.

Salamieja Piĺštynova
Belarus-born adventuress as Dr. House of the 17th century.
Biographies of famous adventurers always make exciting reading. Having opened a book about Giacomo Casanova, Marco Polo, or Mata Hari, one can hardly lay it aside before the last page is reached.
Can Belarus boast with its own Baron Munchhausen, Odysseus, or Indiana Jones? Do the descendants of this country have any exciting life stories to offer?

In fact, they do. One of them is Salamieja Piĺštynova, an 18th century adventuress. A self-taught ophthalmologist, she became the first woman known to practice medicine officially on Belarusian lands. Salamieja traveled extensively in Central Europe, the Russian Empire and the Near East, earning her daily bread by healing people. Many of her patients were wealthy and influential, but some encounters were truly dangerous.

To our delight, Salamieja Piĺštynova meticulously described her adventures in a book. Today, a copy of her manuscript is one of the many treasures of the National Museum in Krakow, Poland. Originally written in Istanbul in the Polish language, the journal of Salamieja is sown with Belarusian words. No wonder; she was born in the region of Navahradak, in the very heart of Belarus in 1718. Once a major city of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, at that time Navahradak was part of Rzeczpospolita, the union of the Grand Duchy and Polish Kingdom. In her book Salamieja calls herself “Polka”, i.e. a Polish woman. At the same time she describes her native land of Navahradak as “Litva”. During the 18th century people born in the area of Rzeczpospolita that is part of today’s Belarus (once part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania) often described their homeland as Litva (‘Lithuania’), while subscribing to the Polish nation in a broader sense. It was similar to calling oneself American in the USA. This tendency especially increased with time, as the Grand Duchy grew weaker in a political sense, and gradually surrendered its culture to that of its partner in the union, the Polish Kingdom.

We don’t know much about Salamieja – not even whether she was of noble or common descent. In any case, she was not a spoilt child of fortune. Her family name was Rusieckaja. When Salamieja was about 14 years old, her parents organised the marriage of Salamieja with doctor Jakub Chaĺpir. She probably had no thorough education, but enjoyed shooting and always had pistols and rifles at her side while traveling. It was a clever habit which would come in handy in the future.

The manuscript’s lengthy title can be translated as “The Echo of my Life’s Travels and Adventures, Presented to the World”. However, unlike her contemporary baroque authors, Salamieja did not cram her book with pompous descriptions and complicated allegories. Her writing is precise and dynamic, which reads like an adventure novel. Still, her book is not devoid of self-reflections of a woman. Salamieja had a literary ambition and pointed out that she intended to publish her journal as a book with women being her target readership. It was quite a pioneering attitude for the 18th century Rzeczpospolita.

Poisoning in Istanbul
In 1731, right after her marriage, Salamieja left her native Navahradak land and followed her husband to Istanbul. There, she attentively observed the ophthalmologic practice of Jakub.

Salamieja was fascinated with the capital of the Ottoman Empire, which was a bustling trade centre. Its Golden Horn harbour was considered one of the best in the world. “Istanbul may be a great and pompous city beyond any measure, but it is also an old city. Here one can see a palace worth of thousands, and a smithy nearby, where horses are being shoed. Close by one would find a shop, where cucumbers and melons are sold”. Salamieja had a lively mind and good memory. Soon she began to help her husband to treat his patients. She also consulted another doctor from Iraq, who told her about ways to cure simple eye illnesses. Eventually Salamieja gained so much experience that Istanbul authorities allowed her to practice medicine officially on her own.
It turned out that being a Christian woman in a Muslim city was an advantage for her as a doctor. Unlike Muslim women, Salamieja was allowed to enter any house she wanted without supervision of her husband.  However, she had to be careful. One day two women came to her house and asked for a doctor. They asked Salamieja to follow them to another part of the city in order to treat their ill mother. The women, who offered some money in advance, wore yashmaks which hid their faces. Salamieja grew suspicious and refused.
Instead, her neighbour, a wife of a Jewish doctor, offered her services to the women. As it was usual in Turkey, she put on all kinds of jewels before leaving her house. As a result, the yashmak-covered strangers turned out to be dressed-up janissaries - cruel Turkish soldiers - who robbed and killed the doctor’s wife.

Being a doctor in Istanbul was indeed a dangerous business. Once, Jakub Chaĺpir, husband of Salamieja, failed to treat a Turkish official of a serious illness. The official died, and his relatives threatened to appeal for sentencing Jakub to death. However, Salamieja managed to persuade them to settle for money compensation. Jakub was saved, but his wife did not give up. She began her own investigation and soon her suspicion fell on a Portuguese doctor Fonseca, a major rival of her husband. According to historians, he was quite a remarkable person who served as a personal doctor to Sultan Ahmed III and also treated the Swedish king Charles XII after his fiasco in the battle against Russia in Poltava. Salamieja found out that Fonseca visited her husband while he prepared the medicine for the unfortunate official. She accused Fonseca of mixing a poison into the cure in order to get rid of the rival doctor. The looming court hearing scared Fonseca out of his senses. He agreed to pay the money fine instead of Jakub. However, some time later the Portuguese doctor avenged on Salamieja. He persuaded Hakim Pasha, an Ottoman official who was responsible for medicine in the Empire, to bar Salamieja from treating men. However, after she successfully cured another Ottoman official of urolithiasis, the ban was lifted. The medical system of the Ottoman Empire showed surprising flexibility in such matters.

Doctor to Balkan Robbers

In 1735 Chaĺpir went to Bosnia. Some time later Salamieja followed him with her small daughter and an old crippled Tatar man Jazep Krymil, who knew various Slavic languages and served as an interpreter.

The journey was full of various encounters. Salamieja describes a whole raw of characters she had treated. She discovered a smart way of getting to know potential clients. Salamieja attended Turkish women baths, which were something like clubs where women could entertain themselves by singing, dancing, and chatting. Every time someone complained about poor health or had a sick relative, Salamieja offered her help.

In the city of Filibe (today, Plovdiv in Bulgaria) the doctor had an accident which almost cost Salamieja her life. She attended a sick 7-year-old daughter of the city’s nasir (commandant). Salamieja treated her against helminths with an herb and acid elixir she had prepared. Having drunk a couple of drops of it, the girl died. The furious father was about to kill the doctor. Salamieja saved herself only by drinking the rest of the medicine in front him.

In order to reach the city of Sophia, Salamieja needed to cross the Balkan Mountains. Dressed up as a man, she joined a caravan of tradesmen. However, the disguise did not help Salamieja when the caravan was attacked by the notorious robber gang of Hussein the Red-Headed. He needed a good doctor and seized the opportunity to get one after his spies had informed the gang chief about Salamieja joining the caravan.
Salamieja was brought to the seat of the robbers, which was situated in a valley. “It felt like we came down from the skies” describes Salamieja their descent from mountains. The town which served as the gang’s refuge was obviously situated somewhere in the Karlovy Vary region. Salamieja was fascinated with its healing hot mineral water springs.

In about 40 days Salamieja cured the relative of Hussein the Red-Headed who could not walk; she also treated the gang’s chief swollen eyes. Hussein gave her a generous reward and provided the honorary convoy to Sofia. She also found out, that her fellow co-travelers from the caravan had been killed by the gang.

Husband for a Price

In Sofia Salamieja began to work as a doctor at a harem of a local pasha called Köprűlű. There she finally had a meeting with her husband, who came for a treatment to a local mineral spa. Chaĺpir was accompanied by an Italian, member of the Knights of Malta, who was held captive by the Turkish army.                                                                                                             
Maltesian knights waged a merciless war against Muslims on the sea. Unlike other war captives, who were freed by Muslims after seven years of hard labour, the knights of Malta were kept captives forever. The Italian knight taught Salamieja how to write prescriptions in Latin, as well as presented her with books about the art of healing, lists of diseases and medicines.

Some time passed. Salamieja learned the sad news that her husband had died in Bosnia. She wanted to go there to collect his possessions, but it was too late. Austria and Hungary joined Russia in its war against the Ottoman Empire. Salamieja witnessed many bloody events of the war. This had such a negative effect on Salamieja that she decided to abandon her service for the Turkish pasha. She dressed up as a janissary and went to the fortress of Baba Vida on Danube River with her daughter and servants. Major forces of the Ottoman army gathered there. The Austrian army tried to seize the fortress several times, to no avail. Salamieja saw hundreds of captive Austrian soldiers and officers there.

Salamieja got acquainted with a well-off Turk, who introduced her to a new type of business, which flourished during the war. Rich Turks ransomed captives out for money. Not some random captives, but those officers who had rich families at home in Austria or Germany. The rescued remained with their “saviors” until their relatives repaid the ransom plus some extra charge. Until then, the rescuer agreed to provide lodging and board for the former captives. Immoral as it seems today, the trade made everyone happy and was considered respectable and humane. The Turks got their money, and the captives escaped harsh conditions and reunited with their families.

Salamieja decided to follow the advice of the Turk, who had already “purchased” 30 captive officers and their wives. She ransomed out five Austrians, who had respectable and rich families. They promised to ask relatives to repay Salamieja the sum, which would almost double what she had paid for them. And they kept their promise – all but one. The relatives of one officer, Joseph Fortunat de Pichelstein lived in some remote village in Austria, and the correspondence got lost on the way. He had to accompany Salamieja on her journeys until the payment would come. “He seemed [to be] a sober, obedient, quiet, and pious person to me”, she wrote. Salamieja did not know that soon she would carry the name Piĺštynova, a Polish version of Pichelstein. It appears that Salamieja had purchased herself a husband. However, it turned to be rather troublesome investment. Why? You will learn all about it in the second part of the article, which would be published in the next issue of “Belarus Headlines”.

Front cover of the memoirs by Salamieja Piĺštynova, published in Minsk in 1993

By Aleś Kudrycki for the ODB

p.s. Dear readers, as you have probably noticed, we used a special spelling for Belarus-related names in this article. Belarus has a long tradition of using both Сyrillic (“kirylica”) and Latin (“lacinka”) alphabets. We even used Arabic alphabet at some point of our history, but this a story which requires a separate article, which would surely be presented to you in the future. The version of the Latin alphabet we used reflects the most recent variation of the Belarusian “lacinka”, which was suggested by the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus this year and approved by the UNGEGN (United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names), which deals with the technical problems of domestic standardization of geographical names, for the international use.
Belarus is situated on the crossroads of many cultures. As a result, the information about the personalities and events we describe is scattered across the internet, and can be found not only in Belarusian, but also in English, Russian, Polish, and other sources. For your convenience, we provide chief names, which appear in the article, in their transliteration in relevant languages. If you experiment with this, you will see, that in some languages the information is more abundant, than in others.

Hopefully, this would make your search for additional information easier:
Salameja Pilshtynova – possible English transliteration (5 search results in Google)
Salomea Pilsztynowa – Polish transliteration (1 310 results)
Саламея Пільштынова – Belarusian Cyrillic (625 results)
Соломея Пильштынова – Russian transliteration (145 results).