Salamieja Piĺštynova (Part III)

Belarus-born adventuress as Dr. House of the 18th century
Continued from issue LI

Besieged by Robbers

The route of Salamieja’s journey went through Estonia which, at that time, was under the Russian Empire. In a fortress of Narva she picked up two captured Turks, and another two in Revel (now Tallinn, the capital of Estonia). The commandant of the Revel fortress showed unusual hospitality. He did not allow Salamieja to leave under the pretext that the frost was too bitter to travel. In the meantime, he and his wife frequented other respectable homes in Revel, always taking Salamieja along on their visits. A young foreign doctor woman became an invaluable source of entertainment for Revel’s upper circles.

Finally, Salamieja managed to escape the friendly embrace of Revel’s commandant. She was provided with a convoy of seven Russian soldiers. They came in very handy on the way from Revel to Riga (now the capital of Latvia). One night Salamieja with her convoy, servants and the captured Turks decided to spend a night in an Estonian tavern. The soldiers chucked out all the visitors from the tavern, except of one, who seemed to be totally drunk and quietly slept in a corner.

When the lights were extinguished and everyone went off to bed, an old woman working at the tavern quietly woke Salamieja up. She told the doctor that she was born in Viĺnia (Vilnius) and recognized Salamieja as a person from her native land when she spoke to her servants. The woman told Salamieja that the doctor and her company were in a deadly danger. Not a single important visitor had ever left this tavern alive. It was the way the master of the tavern and his accomplices treated their guests — they let them drink, eat, and fall asleep; then they robbed and murdered them. The “drunkard” was indeed a sober robber, who waited for a handy moment to open the doors to his people.
Salamieja thanked the kind woman and woke her people up. They tied up the tavern-keeper and the “drunken” watchman. They made it clear to the master of the tavern that if anything bad happened, his family should expect no mercy.

At midnight, when the expected signal did not come, the bandits approached the tavern in the darkness. Salamieja and her people drew the blinds so that it would be impossible to see from the outside how many people were inside and what they were doing. The captured Turks began to make a terrible rattling and noise in their native tongue in order to create an illusion that there were many of them in the house. However, this did not help. The robbers began to dismantle the gates. The Russian soldiers managed to shoot three of them. Benedykt, Salamieja’s servant, was beating the robbers with a long pole, sitting atop the fence. The siege promised to be long and who knows how it would have ended if a rich Russian aristocrat  did not happen to ride by with his cortege. His servants chased away the robbers.

Visiting Husband’s Family

When Salamieja reached her homeland an unpleasant surprise expected her. Rzeczpospolita signed a peace treaty with Turkey. Hetman Radzivil did not allow Salamieja to go to Turkey; and, the ex-captured Turks were set free and left the country without returning the ransom to Salamieja. To make everything even worse, Radzivil sent Salamieja’s husband Joseph Fortunat de Pichelstein to serve at a faraway village of Lachva near the city of Brest (now in western Belarus). Salamieja could not imagine spending years in such a god-forsaken hole. She left her daughter Kanstancyja and all her possessions and, despite being pregnant, set out on a journey to Austria in order to visit her husband’s family and claim the long-expected ransom for Joseph.

The family of Joseph lived in the town of Kamna Gorica in Western Slovenia, which was under the rule of Habsburg dynasty. Joseph came from the family of miners. For many generations his ancestors mined iron ore, for which they were even rewarded with an aristocratic title. Joseph had three brothers and four sisters, all of them held respectable positions in society. Joseph was the only child who disappointed his parents. He never obeyed them and wasted a lot of their money. He decided to become a soldier in the Austrian army without their consent. Perhaps, that was the reason why the father of Joseph paid Salamieja only one third of what she had originally spent in order to ransom him.

No Fun in Vienna

Salamieja spent a month and a half in Kamna Gorica and then visited Vienna. The city disappointed Salamieja. It was nothing like St. Petersburg. “Vienna, the city where the Christian Emperor lives, is like Istanbul. Here one sees a majestic monastery and a poor shack of an artisan or a teacher nearby; there is an old house near a brand-new palace”.
Salamieja took up her residence in a hotel and filed an official application in order to receive Joseph’s military service payments and get back the ransom she had paid for him. Eventually, Salamieja was received by the Emperor Karl VI. The Emperor assured Salamieja that her request will be satisfied. However, nothing happened. Salamieja had an audience with Empress Elizabeth, who gave Salamieja five golden ducats, even though she had paid 60 times more for him.

Salamieja was running out of money. She complained about Austrians’ stinginess and lack of hospitality. “Oh, here it is nothing like in Russia! No one invites me to dinner. Germans have no such tradition as Poles or Russians, who not only drink to a person but always treat this person to a cup. It is nothing like that in Germany. ‘Your health, my dear lady!’ says a German and drinks to my health, without treating me to a cup. In such moments I feel like I am bathing in boiling water!”

A Turkish diplomatic mission came to Vienna and settled close to the hotel where Salamieja lived. She offered her medical help to the mission. The Turkish ambassador was happy to hire Salamieja, because his previous Austrian doctor could not understand Turkish and had to use an interpreter. Vienna aristocrats noticed that Salamieja was popular at the Turkish mission and also began to turn to her for medical advice.

One Woman, Two Pistols
Having given birth to her son Francišak in Vienna, Salamieja finally saved enough money to return home. However, everything was spoilt by the news of her husband’s misbehaviour in her absence. She tried to let bygones be bygones, but it did not work. Despite of being pregnant again, Salamieja decided to leave Joseph.

She went to Bulgaria in order to search for the four Turkish captives who still owed her their ransoms. She soon found them. Two of them, after some bargaining, agreed to pay the money back; the other two, however, argued that they owed nothing to Salamieja. As a result, she sued them at a Turkish court.

During the hearing Salamieja produced an order from Sultan which supported her claim. After that, the first of the ex-captives immediately agreed to pay the money, while the second one threatened Salamieja with a savage reprisal. Salamieja answered by taking a couple of loaded pistols from her pockets. “I have enough gunpowder even for your servants”, she said. “Give me what belongs to me, and then let God decide what happens next”.

On the Way to Jerusalem
Having saved some money, Salamieja moved to a Ukrainian town Kamenets Podolski, and brought all her children together. It seemed like she finally got settled in life. However, everything went wrong again. The commandant of the fortress of Kamenets Podolski had borrowed a large sum of money from her on the security of table silver, horses and other valuables. However, when Salamieja wanted to have her money back, the commandant not only refused to return it, but also demanded that she returned him his possessions. Salamieja refused. The commandant ordered to put her under house arrest.

Salamieja could not receive a passport to leave the town. In this dramatic moment Joseph de Pichelstein abandoned his wife. The commandant realised that Salamieja remained without her last protection and ordered to send the doctor to the town of Bila Cerkva in a life-long exile. Nevertheless, Salamieja managed to find refuge at a local Dominican nunnery. In 1743, she dressed in somebody else’s clothes and left the town. “I remained such an orphan, without any help, without money! This is how my Motherland has treated me!” wrote Salamieja about Rzeczpospolita.

Eventually, she reached Warsaw. There she persuaded Crown Hetman Potocki, commander of the military forces of Polish Kingdom, to make the commandant return her the money.
After various adventures and misfortunes, Salamieja returned to Istanbul. Her ultimate plan was to visit Jerusalem, the city she had heard a lot about, but never been to. This is where she interrupts her journal. We do not know, whether Salamieja had reached Jerusalem. However, considering her previous experiences, there is a very good chance she actually had.

Open Mind

The journal of Salamieja Piĺštynova shows her as a very broad-minded and independent person. While it was commonplace in Rzeczpospolita to ridicule Russians and Turks as barbarians, she flattered the generosity and spirit of these peoples. At the same time, she scorned at the “golden freedoms” of Rzeczpospolitan aristocracy. In this sense, she was not devoid of political foresight. The aristocratic anarchy soon lamed Rzeczpospolita so that it could no longer resist foreign threats and was divided in three pieces between Russia, Prussia and Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the 18th century.

The autocratic regime of tsarist Russia was obviously appealing to Salamieja. She fancied the order in St. Petersburg, which was installed by the iron hand of Peter the Great. If Salamieja could visit her native Belarusian lands today, there is a good chance that she would have liked its authoritarian regime as well. Streets are clean, street crime is low. However, her opinion could be reversed by the acquaintance with the Belarusian health system: doctors besieged by demanding patients and making ends meet on their pitiful wages.

Another peculiarity of Salamieja’s writing, which gave her journal almost a journalistic quality, is the fact that she supported the information by naming her sources. If one attempts to verify them, the sources usually prove correct. Her descriptions of daily life in Russia, Turkey and other countries are picturesque and precise. All this gives the stories of Sałamieja credibility and value.

Unlike Casanova and other younger colleagues of hers in the field of adventure, Salamieja entered palaces not through the main gates, but through back doors. Salameja was of a modest descent, but managed to work her way into the upper circles with disarming ease. She not only described the habits and whims of aristocracy, but also the daily life and struggles of common folk: servants, tavern owners, market tenants, etc. This makes her book especially exciting to read.

Genius or Fraud?

Sałamieja was also a keen learner. She absorbed new information as a sponge. In her journal she even voiced her desire to publish the medical knowledge she had accumulated with time in a separate book. Unfortunately, this manuscript, if at all existent, has not been found yet. However, what happens if one attempts to analyse Salamieja’s medical notes from today’s point of view? What if she exaggerated her successes?

For instance, Salamieja often writes that she has been approached by blind people – and managed to cure them. If today’s medicine is far from being able to tackle blindness, how could a sole amateur doctor make people see almost three centuries ago? Or, how could she cure cataracts, if today they are treated by surgery, which involves implanting artificial crystalline lenses?

The author of this article described the cases of Salameja’s practice to an ophtalmologist working at a major clinic in Minsk and was told that Salamieja may have been quite honest in her journal. First, we do not know exactly what she understood and described as blindness. In earlier ages “blind” could also be used to describe a person with seeing disorder. Salamieja described several cases in which she successfully treated blind people whose eyes were red and swollen. It is therefore possible that these people simply had cornea inflammation. In those times hygiene was poor. It was enough simply to touch one’s eyes with dirty hands, scratch or slightly hurt them in order to get a severe inflammation. Such inflammations could also be caused by flu or other diseases. If one was able to cure the illness, which had a side effect on the eyes, the person could become able to see.

Another case of “blindness” may be thrombosis of retina, when blood is not able to reach the eye through the vessels normally. If one has a simple medicine which improves blood circulation, it is well possible that the eyesight may return or improve.

What about cataract? A cataract is a clouding that develops in the crystalline lens of the eye or in its envelope, varying in degree from slight to complete opacity and obstructing the passage of light. Today it is cured by implanting an artificial intraocular lens.

“Fortunately, the girl had a light cataract, and I was able to remove it the same day with my instruments,” describes Salameja a case from her practice. How could she treat cataract in the 18th century with her primitive instruments? Hard to believe but that was quite possible. In fact, early cataract surgery was developed long before Salameja by an Indian surgeon, Sushruta (6th century B.C.). The Indian tradition of cataract surgery was performed with a special tool called the Jabamukhi Salaka, a curved needle used to loosen the eye lens and push the cataract clouding out of the field of vision. The eye would later be soaked with warm butter and then bandaged. Greek physicians and philosophers left records about their travels to India where these surgeries were performed on them. The removal of cataract by surgery was also introduced into China from India.

The first references to cataract and its treatment in Ancient Rome are found in 29 A.D. in “De Medicinae”, the work of the Latin encyclopedist Aulus Cornelius Celsus. The Romans were pioneers in the health arena—particularly in the area of eye care.

The Iraqi ophthalmologist Ammar ibn Ali of Mosul performed the first extraction of cataracts through suction. He invented a hollow metallic syringe hypodermic needle, which he applied through the sclerotic and extracted the cataracts using suction. In his “Choice of Eye Diseases”, written in ca. 1000, he wrote of his invention of the hypodermic needle and how he discovered the technique of cataract extraction while experimenting with it on a patient.

It is, therefore, possible that Salamieja performed simple cataract surgeries on her own. According to her journal, she had so few medical failures, that she may be awarded the title of Dr. House of the 18th century. Or is it simply because she preferred not to write about her fiascos?


The journal of Salamieja was written in Istanbul in 1760. Its first publication took place only two centuries later, in 1957. Her book is particularly impressive since it was written by a woman in the times when women had barely any rights in Europe, let alone the Near East.
Today, when Belarusfilm- Belarus’ national film production company – struggles with lack of creative ideas, and Belarusian TV channels are parroting (and pirating) western sitcoms, the book by Salamieja Pilštynova could provide fruitful material for a movie or TV series. However, there is one major hurdle. What should one do in order to inspire Belarusian producers for a library visit?

By Ales Kudrytski for the ODB