The oldest embalmed human body in the world was preserved for science and future generations. For the first time this responsible process was provided by Ukrainian scientists. Their victory has not only scientific significance, but also a political component. After all, they broke the monopoly of Russians in this area.

We are talking about the body of the famous scientist and medician Mykola Pyrogov, which is stored already 137th year in Vinnytsia, where the doctor lived for the last two decades of his life. Professor of the National University of Bioresources and Nature Management, Doctor of Veterinary Sciences Oleh Melnyk, one of the participants in the process of re-embalming, told Opinion about how it happened.

The genius of medicine

“Who Pyrogov really is? I would say that he is a father with many children, – believes Oleh Petrovych. – The father of military surgery, the Red Cross, the Institute of Nurses (Nurses of Mercy), ice or topographic anatomy, plaster bandages, artificial joints and much more. He developed a lot of medical and veterinary tools that we still use. Mykola Ivanovych surpassed the scientific thought for almost 100 years. He was not the first to undergo anesthesia, but he was actively engaged in this. He did unique operations very quickly. Even before the invention of anesthesia, the removal of the gallbladder took him a minute and a half, appendicitis – three minutes, stones from the bladder – a minute. During two weeks of the outbreak of cholera, Pyrogov conducted an autopsy of 10 thousand corpses. He diagnosed and studied anatomy”.

Mykola Pyrogov remembered for life the phrase of his teacher, the famous doctor Yefrem Mukhin: “The doctor, which is not an anatomist, is not only unhelpful, but harmful”. No wonder later he claimed: “Mukhin is my angel”. Pyrogov cured 21-year-old Dmitry Mendeleyev, in the future an outstanding chemist, to whom the doctors had made a fatal diagnosis, saved from leg amputation the national hero of Italy Giuseppe Garibaldi, advised German statesman Otto von Bismarck. Is that why the Germans in occupied Vinnytsia during the Second World War put up a military post at the tomb of an outstanding physician?

Mykola Pyrogov took part in the Crimean and Russian-Turkish wars. Moving away from public affairs, he moved to Vinnytsia. Having 7,5 thousand hectares of land, he brought out two varieties of hard wheat, which he sold abroad. He did a lot in the pedagogical field. He wrote poems and philosophical treatises. Poor people were treated for free – after the operation, he hid his hands in his pockets, so that he would not get money.

Embalming of the scientist

Mykola Ivanovych died of cancer at 71 years old. 26 days before his death, he diagnosed himself. At the request of his wife, Baroness Oleksandra von Bistrom, an outstanding physician, was embalmed. A famous physician from St. Petersburg David Vyvodtsev did this on the fourth day after the death of Pyrogov. Permission to this cause was given by the Holy Synod. To tell the truth, the church set a condition: the body of the scientist has to rest below the ground level, and it was taken into account in the construction of the crypt.

“As described in the presence of two doctors, a priest and two paramedics, David Vyvodtsev started work and finished it in 4 hours,” Oleh Melnyk continued. – He washed the vessels, pumped the solution developed by him. He made a small incision and removed only the organs of the abdominal cavity, that is, those that quickly decompose. Eyewitnesses wrote that after embalming, Mykola Ivanovych’s body “took the form of a sleeping man”. No one touched Pyrogov’s body for 65 years. There was not a single care for him”.

However, the issue of re-embalming was raised in the 1920s by the society of doctors of Vinnytsia, and in 1940 at the level of the People’s Commissariat of Health of the Ukrainian SSR. The work was planned for the summer of 1941, but the war began.

“In 1944, when Vinnytsia was liberated, Colonel-General Smirnov reported to Stalin that an outstanding military surgeon was in the city,” Oleh Melnyk said. – There was an appropriate decree to recollect the body and create a museum. Under the strict control of Beria, everything connected with the name of Pyrogov in Moscow, Leningrad, was confiscated and exported to Vinnytsia for the creation of the museum. In 1947 the museum was opened”.

Under the tutelage of Moscow

The first re-embalming of Pyrogov was taken by Raphael Sinelnikov, who at one time assisted Professor Vladimir Vorobyov with the embalming of Lenin’s body. By the way, for a long time nobody wanted to take over the body of the world proletariat leader, scientists were afraid of responsibility. Biochemist Boris Zbarsky, who was a member of the relevant state commission, persuaded the head of the anatomy department of Kharkiv Medical Institute Vorobyov to carry out this work. Lenin was embalmed only on the 56th day after his death. Unlike Pyrogov’s body, his body is devoid of all internal organs, in particular the brain.

Vorobyov died in 1937. He did not keep the formula of embalming secret, but Zbarsky kept it secret. By the way, Zbarsky and Sinelnikov continued to work on Lenin’s body, as well as his evacuation in Tyumen during the war.

A brief history of the embalming of the Soviet leader is given to understanding the further fate of Pyrogov’s body. Indeed, after the war, the Moscow specialists headed by Sinelnikov began to visit Vinnytsia. And since 1978 Pyrogov’s body was revitalized by Lenin’s mausoleum employees (the name of the institution dealing with the leader’s body is the All-Russia Scientific Research Institute of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants).

“Then Pyrogov was taken to Moscow (again in 1988), were done a lot, in particular, an x-ray,” explained Professor Melnyk. – This is a very difficult and responsible work. Unfortunately, there are no records of the Sinelnikov Commission. And here they gave a great report: a list of substances, ordered for re-embalming, but no proportions are indicated. For example, the protein of a chicken egg and poison of a snake have the same chemical composition, consist of the same substances, only in different proportions. In one case, this protein gives life, in other – takes it. That is, the ratio is important, what and how much is actually needed. But there were no specific recipes. Some of the substances on that list, in my opinion, did not have anything to do with embalming”.

Since 1994, all the re-embalming of Pyrogov’s body was conducted by the Moscow group of Professor Yurii Denisov-Nikolsky (died in January 2018) on the territory of the museum-estate in Vinnytsia. In 2011, the Russians held the ninth re-embalming, the tenth was scheduled for 2016, but it never happened – in 2014, the Russian-Ukrainian war began.

Ukrainians take the case

“Moscow did not deny, they invited enslaving conditions that were unacceptable for us,” said Petro Gunko, general director of the National Museum-Estate of Mykola I. Pyrogov, to Opinion. The Ministry of Health of Ukraine did not recommend to make an agreement with the country-aggressor”.

Petro Markovich refused to disclose the requirements of Russians. The head of the institution was faced with a difficult task – to find Ukrainian specialists, who could ensure the preservation of Pyrogov’s body.

“It was a painstaking job, I searched the Internet for anatomists at medical universities in Ukraine,” continued Petro Gunko. – Scientists of our university have suggested who can do this. And we found a group of scientists, who got down to work. The Department of Human Anatomy of the Vinnytsia National Medical University named after Pyrogov was leading. They created the Pyrogov Commission, invited scientists from Kyiv to cooperate, and decided on a working group. In our field of vision came Professor Oleh Melnyk, Doctor of Veterinary Sciences, he was a competent anatomist, we found a common language.

Meeting of the Pyrogov Commission

We have achieved a fairly high level of re-embalming. Our scientists have come up with some of their techniques, which are perceived as know-how, based on the methodology of Professor Vyvodtsev. We polished it a little, added modern materials. It turned out better than it was before. It was possible to whiten the face and arms of Mykola Ivanovych”.

The process of preparation of a balm solution

Oleh Melnyk confirmed: the body of the famous surgeon became lighter. It added two and a half kilos in weight. This indicates that the solution prepared and pumped by our scientists successfully penetrated into the vessels. By the way, the tunic on Pyrogov was worn by a doctor during his lifetime. The English cloth is of high quality, even a thread did not come out.

Professor Oleh Melnyk and the jacket of Mykola Pyrogov

The Pyrogov Commission was headed by the rector of the Vinnytsia National Medical University named after Pyrogov, academician of the NAMS of Ukraine, Professor Vasyl Moroz. The team of our scientists, according to Oleh Melnyk, worked very well, although it was not easy. Nobody knew the condition of Pyrogov’s body. Russian experts did not say anything about what and how they did with it. The Ukrainian scientists took the body of the scientist for computed tomography. Now, says Oleh Petrovych, the members of the working group know more about the body of Mykola Ivanovych than the doctor himself knew during his lifetime.

Computer tomography study


The composition of the executive group of the Pyrogov Commission: Oleh Melnyk – Doctor of Veterinary Science, Professor, Head of the Department of Anatomy, Histology and Pathomorphology, named after Academician V.G. Kasyanenko NUBP; Yurii Guminsky – doctor of Medical Science, Professor of the Department of Human Anatomy, Vice-Rector for Scientific and Pedagogical Work of the VNMU named after M. I. Pyrogov; Sergii Grytsenko – Associate Professor of the Department of Normal Anatomy of the VNMU named after M. I. Pyrogov; Viktor Gaydukov – scientific secretary of the National Museum-Estate M.I. Pyrogov, secretary of the commission; Zinaida Martynova – the chief curator of the National Museum-Estate of M. I. Pyrogov. Igor Golubovsky, Associate Professor of Operative Surgery Department of the VNMU named after M. I. Pyrogov; Leonid Zalevsky and Pavel Stelmashchuk – teachers of the Department of Anatomy of the VNMU named after M. I. Pyrogov.

Suprun was against

Unfortunately, not everyone understands Pyrogov’s contribution to world science and medicine. Therefore, the question of the expediency of further preserving the body of a doctor and a scientist was raised. Like, is not it better to send remedies for drugs for patients? By the way, the money had to be relatively little – 200 thousand UAH.

January 31 this year Acting Minister of Health Ulyana Suprun wrote a post on Facebook with a proposal to vote “for” and “against”:

“The commission of the National Museum-Estate of M. I. Pyrogov appealed to the Government with a request to allow the re-embalming of the scientist’s body. Price issue – 199 034 UAH. With this money, you can buy, for example, more than a hundred packs of the drug for the treatment of acute leukemia. Often there is a request from the regions for this drug. Or other drugs or medications that could help many patients. Or Mykola Pyrogov would want money that can be used to treat living people was spent on the procedure of re-embalming, which no longer helps anyone? Should budgetary funds be spent on such procedures in Ukraine in the XXI century? What do you think?”

On February 5, Oleh Melnyk answered the official with his post, noting in particular: “Do you, as Acting Minister of Health, want to give an occasion to our northern neighbor-aggressor to say that Ukraine is not capable of preserving the body of an outstanding scientist and manipulating it on the world stage?”

“It is incorrect to ask the question, which is more important: embalming or treatment,” Oleh Petrovych explained. – And put the issue to the vote, because many people are not related to medicine, they may not care who Pyrogov was and why he lies in Vinnytsia. An outstanding Russian scientist – this is what’s written about Pirogov. In fact, he is a world-class scientist.”

The Chairman of the Cabinet intervened in the question – the Pyrogov Commission appealed to him with the appropriate letter.

“Prime Minister of Ukraine Volodymyr Groysman gave the command to allocate funds, and the funds were allocated,” said Petro Gunko. “The money and organization of the process is the merit of the prime minister.”

“We did it”

The moral aspect of the matter is not ignored. Repeatedly the question was raised: should not Pyrogov’s body be buried? In the opinion of Professor Melnyk, if it should be done, then back in 1881, the year of the death of the great surgeon. Now it serves for science, is considered the oldest embalmed surviving body in the world. Inanimate people were embalmed before, but for a short time, before burial. According to the mummies, they, in the opinion of the scientist, have no relation to embalming. After all it is a question of the dried up bodies, tissues of the embalmed bodies keep the elasticity. Therefore, the expression in many media “mummy of Pyrogov” is incorrect.

Before removing the body of Mykola Pyrogov from the tomb

Before the responsible business, Oleh Melnyk applied for a blessing to the Patriarch of Kyiv and all of Rus-Ukraine Filaret and received it. Archbishop of Vinnytsia and Bratslav Mykhail also blessed this matter.

A group of scientists at the bath with a saline solution

The Pyrogov Commission began its activity in November 2017. Immediate work with the re-embalming of the body of Mykola Ivanovych took place in March-April 2018. A month it was in a solution for impregnating tissues, scientists sewed a special hermetic overalls, the design of which was much better than the previous one. On April 20, Pyrogov’s body was re-exhibited in the burial vault for visitors, which are enough in the museum-estate of Pyrogov. There are 150-170 thousand people in the institution annually.

Church-tomb of Mykola Pyrogov. Photo:

The house of Mykola Pyrogov. Photo:

“After I called my colleague in St. Petersburg and said: “We did it,” Oleh Melnyk recalls.” He answered to me: “You do not understand what you did. First, you destroyed the monopoly of the Moscow mausoleum, and secondly, it is a work of world significance”.

Completion of the work before the return of Mykola Pyrogov’s body to the crypt

The Russians embalmed the bodies of the majority of world leaders, whom they intended to show to posterity, in particular Ho Chi Minh, Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il. Professor Melnyk noted two more embalming schools – the Chinese (the body of Mao Zedong) and the Spanish (the body of Eva Peron). Now Ukrainian scientists have shown their skills in this delicate sphere.

What is the future?

“The commission is permanent, it will decide when to conduct the next re-embalming,” Oleh Melnyk assured. “We’ll open the sarcophagus somewhere in six months, without taking the body out of the crypt”. Just to look at the condition of the available tissues. But we will hardly look there very often because there is no point. I think it will last at least 5 years”.

The management of the National Museum-Estate of M. I. Pyrogov and members of the executive group of the Pyrogov Commission

Since 2004, Oleh Petrovych has dealt with polymer embalming at the Department of Anatomy of NUBP. This method was invented by the Germans, the technology is described on the Internet, but the secret is in silicone.

“This technology came to me from Russians,” the professor said. – In 2005, there was another re-embalming of Pyrogov. Later I came to the museum and asked the then director of access to Mykola Ivanovych’s body to take a small piece of cloth in the cut places – about a centimeter per centimeter. If I can wash all that has been pouring in all the time, then it will be possible to think about the question of the complete polymer embalming of the body. After that, the re-embalming will no longer be necessary.

The Germans give a guarantee of 50 thousand years to such drugs, Russians – 10 thousand, I will be more modest – indefinitely for a long time. It is impossible to count, since the preparations are not subject to any biological damage. The director told me: “A young man, we do not even raise the coffin without a Moscow mausoleum”. I did not know a lot then. 10 years were spent developing this technology”.

The department of the university will practice the methods of polymeric embalming on the corpses of animals also in the future. Oleh Melnyk does not exclude that over time they will raise the question of whether there is a sense of plastination of Pyrogov’s body. We cannot allow for anything to go wrong.

Text: Viktor Tsvilikhovsky

Photo from the archives of Professor Oleh Melnyk

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