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Valentina Suntzeff – Autobiography

Valentina Suntzeff was born in Kazan, Russia in 1891. After the Russian Revolution, her family emigrated, first to China and then the United States, initially settling in San Francisco. In this autobiography, written in 1973, Suntzeff recalls her medical education and career as a woman in Russia and compares it with what she encountered in America. Though it took several years for Suntzeff and her husband to find work in their chosen fields, they eventually found success in their professional careers in the U.S.

Suntzeff wrote the autobiography at the request of author Cecyle S. Neidle, who was preparing a book on the experiences of foreign-born women and the roles they played in the U.S. Valentina Suntzeff and Gerty Cori were two of the women who were to be featured in the chapter on foreign-born women in medicine. The book, America’s Immigrant Women, with several pages about both Suntzeff and Cori, was published in 1975.

[The following autobiography has been edited for spelling only.]



Valentina Suntzeff, M.D.


I was born the 28th of February, 1891, in Kazan, Russia. My family consisted of my parents, two brothers, two sisters and me – I was the third oldest child. My father was a doctor. I was very close to my father and admired him. I would sneak into his study and look at his medical books and journals. I was fascinated by pictures of the anatomy of man. When I was 8 years old I decided to follow in my father’s footsteps.

Part of our house was used by my father as his office and waiting room, and where he did minor surgery. One day my curiosity got the best of me and I hid behind the door and watched him perform some minor surgery. He discovered me there while he was in the middle of surgery, pulled me out, and told me if I wanted to watch to do so openly and not behind doors. We had a talk afterwards and I told him of wanting to go into medicine. He encouraged me, believing I was capable of this. I was then 9 years old. Unfortunately my father died when I was in my early teens. My mother was usually agreeable to my father’s ideas, and completely supported my ambition. My older brother and sister thought that it would be a fine thing if I went into medicine. However, when I consulted my father’s close friend who was a doctor, he strongly discouraged me; he said it was too hard for a woman; and also there was very little opportunity to pursue the career of a doctor. But I held fast to my decision. My maternal uncle, a lawyer, encouraged me and partially financed my way through medical school. I had a wonderful teacher of biology in the last two years of gymnasium, who further strengthened my interest in the field.

I received all of my education in Russia. I finished gymnasium in Kazan, which is quite a large city on the Volga River. Our gymnasium could be compared with your high schools; the only difference is that our program there was broader than that of your schools. After we finished our gymnasium (high school) we could enter most of our universities without any examination. At the gymnasium we were all required to take certain basic subjects, such as Russian literature, physics and mathematics regardless of what we were going to major in later. Our courses were so thorough that most American universities would give us two years of college credit, so that instead of entering as freshmen we could enter as juniors. So far as I know, all of our medical schools and universities were supported by the Government. I say medical schools and universities, because we women had separate medical schools which were not affiliated with the universities as were the medical schools for men. This explains why the tuition in our universities was very low, especially in comparison with the tuition which students have to pay here. For example, I paid 50 rubles a year in my medical school which covered laboratory fees and all expenses except books. Fifty rubles at that time was equivalent to about 50 dollars.

Our students in general had much less money than the students here. Many students were supporting themselves completely or partially by tutoring students of the gymnasium or grammar schools as I did. There was a student mutual aide, the aim of which was to help our poor students financially. This organization conducted a dining room for students, which served meals at very low cost. For example, for 12-15 kopecks (about 12-15 cents) you could get soup, a piece of meat with potatoes and one vegetable, and as much bread as you wanted. Quite often when students had no money they came to the dining room and had soup and plenty of bread for 5 kopecks. In this way money could be stretched for several days until they received their allowance.

It was absolutely not fashionable to be dressed up in the university. Our dresses were always very tailored, and nobody used make-up, but they all tried to be neat. In my time the type of women students whom we called “blue stockings” had already disappeared. I think this term “blue stockings” is used here to indicate a type of woman who did not care about her appearance and who liked to look as mannish as possible.

When I went to school we did not have co-educational schools. When I was ready for medical school I could not enter the medical school for men which was a part of the university because it was prohibited, so I entered a women’s medical school. However, several years later we women were finally permitted to attend medical schools with men. In my time we had four medical schools for women and ten for men.

Our first higher medical courses for women were organized in St. Petersburg in 1872. Borodin, a well known Russian composer, who composed the beautiful opera Prince Igor, was one of the pioneers who fought for the emancipation of higher education for women. He was a chemist also and his main work was research in plant physiology. He was one of the founders of the school of medicine for women where he taught for many years. He was buried at Nevsky Monastery where there is now a monument. A silver crown was placed on his coffin with an inscription “To the Founder, Protector and Defender of the School of Medicine, From the Women Graduates Between 1872-87.”

Two years later, in 1874, the first independent medical college for women was established in London in the house of Dr. Anstil. However, there are a few cases of women receiving higher medical education before that date. Miss Elizabeth Blackwell, in 1844, applied for admission in all 13 medical schools in the United States. Twelve of them refused her petition. One, Geneva Medical College in New York, accepted her. Most of their objections were that “it was improper and immoral to initiate a woman into the nature and laws of her own organism.” I think we had the same prejudices against higher medical education as you had here, but somehow we developed our education in this particular line much more successfully than you did. Eighteen years after the first medical school for women was established in Russia we had 12,521 doctors, of whom 409 were women. In my time, after we were graduated from medical school, we had no difficulty in receiving a position. Our applications were considered on the same basis as those of men. We were not discriminated against because of our sex. One’s experience and ability were the factors considered when applying for a position. A large number were employed by the Zemstvo.

I entered medical school in 1911. Medical school was hard and involved a lot of intensive study and long hours. At the same time I became very active in medical student mutual aide organization. We raised funds for needy students by giving balls and concerts. I met the famous Fyodor Chaliapin when I sought to secure him for one of our concerts. He bluntly refused, saying, “If I give you my time, I would have to give to all charities.” I can still remember how disappointed and hurt I was by his refusal. I spent so much time doing this charity work that I got behind in my studies. Our professor of anatomy was very strict. I had to catch up in my study of anatomy. I decided to go to the anatomy amphitheater much earlier than my class. I was alone in the corner, and the only lights were those over the corpse on which I was working. I raised my head and saw the hand of another nearby body drop. I was so startled and terrified that I ran hurriedly out. Another medical student met me in the hall and asked “What happened, Valentina? You are as white as a ghost.” I told her about the incident. We returned and replaced the dropped hand.

There was still time for fun as well as work. We went to concerts and ballets, sometimes going hungry in order to buy the tickets. There were group singings and small parties, at one of which I met my husband. Our relationship with men was informal and casual. We had no dates but gathered together instead and had a good time.

Early in my second year of medical school I became engaged. We were married late that fall, returning to school after a large family wedding. I continued my medical education and my husband continued his study of mechanical engineering. Contraceptives were still in their infancy and I became immediately pregnant but finished my second year. I stayed home a year after my baby was born. My relatives predicted that I would never return to medicine – they even made bets. One relative bet a famous painting that he owned. But I did return for my junior and senior years and finished my medical education. The school was about 1,000 miles away from my new home; the journey took two days by train. My mother-in-law looked after my baby while I was gone. My husband, who had graduated from engineering school, was also living with his parents. Each time I returned home I was filled with anxiety. Will my child not know me and turn away? But each time when she saw me she would come running to hug me. I am certain that I would not have been able to finish medical school without help and backing from my husband. My in-laws, who were well-to-do people, tried to persuade me that I did not need to earn any money and that I was needed at home with my child. But my desire to return to my profession remained strong and my husband encouraged me. He told me I should finish medical school since I may regret not doing so later and this would always stand between us.

After graduation from medical school in 1917 I had many choices for a position as a doctor in the city where my husband lived. My first work was as a doctor for a big ammunition plant working in a hospital where there were eight doctors in addition to myself. Out of the nine doctors, four were women. It was a large factory in which almost all workers were men. This fact did not matter, since men came to women doctors just as freely as they would have come to men doctors.

I have no statistics to show how many women doctors we had in Russia before the Revolution, but I know there was a very large number. We women doctors worked equally with men doctors. I was very much surprised to learn that there was a medical association for women doctors in the United States. In Russia no such organization would have existed. You could find women doctors who specialized in any field of medicine. I have known quite a number of women surgeons. However, I must admit that our best and most well known surgeons were men. I think this fact can be readily explained. We women are newcomers in the medical profession, and I may say, in many professions. It has not been so long since women’s activities were limited to the home.

World War I was already in progress. I was in charge of internal medicine wards. Then I changed to Zemstvo organization and became the head of an isolation hospital for infectious diseases, in spite of my colleagues warning me that I would bring these infectious diseases home – which I never did. I received nothing but bare walls, and instructions to organize a hospital for infectious diseases. It was a difficult and challenging task, very rewarding when it was finally accomplished.

The isolation hospital was located away from town. The head nurse had no one to whom she could turn after hours if there was an emergency. The only telephone in town was at the ammunition plant. Wearing my most becoming dress, I went to the plant manager and told him of my dilemma. He asked me when would I need the telephone. I said immediately, hoping for one in a month. The telephone was installed in two days.

The question of state medicine is very interesting and quite new for American people, but not for Russians. It is a mistake to think that state medicine was established in Russia only after the Revolution. Our Zemstvo-medicine was really an early form of state medicine. In 1864 Alexander the Second organized the Zemstvo and from then on this organization became an established one. It became a very interesting and powerful organization. Before this reform our country had no organized medical help. You will probably want to know what Zemstvo was. The Zemstvo was an elected body invested with certain limited powers. The basis of representation was:

Nobility 43%

Peasantry 38%

Others 19%

All members of the Zemstvo were elected on a three-year basis. The activity of the Zemstvo consisted of the following:

1. The determination and collection of district and provincial taxes.

2. The establishment of offices for this purpose.

3. The management of the properties of the Zemstvo.

4. Relief work during disasters.

5. The construction of roads, canals and other means of communication.

6. The arrangement of mutual insurance.

7. The construction and management of hospitals, charity organizations, asylums, relief of the poor and sick.

8. Advancement of public health, veterinary supervision and treatment.

9. Fire prevention.

10. Advancement of popular education, building and management of schools and libraries.

11. Eradication of harmful insects and plant diseases.

You can see that the activities of Zemstvo were very wide. The Zemstvo and similar city organizations did their work very successfully, especially in the case of popular education and medical care for the public. In Russia Zemstvo medical care and Zemstvo schools were of a very high standard. They were both absolutely free to the people. Most of our Zemstvo workers were very idealistic and liberal. Corruption was practically was unknown among Zemstvo employees and they were satisfied with a modest position and salary. I must admit that we did not have enough physicians in Russia and our Zemstvo and those employed by Zemstvo were overburdened. Every Zemstvo doctor was in charge of a small hospital and usually he had a pheldsher and one midwife to help him (pheldsher – one with a higher education than a nurse and less education than a doctor). Each hospital supervised a certain district. Every person from this district was free to come to the hospital for medical help. If he needed medication he received it; if it was necessary he was admitted to the hospital. No fees were charged but each person paid a certain small tab annually. Consequently they did not neglect to call the doctor because of lack of money. But I again want to emphasize that our Zemstvo-medicine was far from perfect because we did not have enough doctors and little money, but some of our best doctors came from Zemstvo-medicine. From my own experience, in addition to my work in the ward where I had about fifty patients, I was in the dispensary every day where I had to examine fifty or more patients with a little help from the pheldsher. Besides I always had several calls daily.

Civil war began in Russia, culminating in the overthrow of the monarchy – 1917-1918. The town of Perm was caught up in the civil war. It was occupied by the Bolsheviks and was reoccupied by the White Army, an anti-Bolshevik group from Siberia. A decision was made to evacuate the ammunition plant. My husband was then in the White Army in charge of an evacuation train. I became the doctor in charge of the train. We moved slowly through Siberia, through Barnul, Tomsk, and Irkutsk, taking about two months. We were in crowded freight cars, taking turns to keep the fire going to keep warm. Sometimes the bridges ahead of us were blown up by the partisans. We had to wait until these bridges were repaired by army engineers so that we could go ahead. The Siberian railroad had two tracks. One was occupied by Czech, Japanese and other foreign troops participating in fighting the Communists. The other tract was only for evacuation, not for fighting troops, by agreement between Admiral Kolchak, current head of Russian anti-Communist movement, and General Janen, head of evacuation of foreign troops fighting the Communists.

Most of my work as physician for the evacuation train was preventive medicine. Each time the train stopped, I would order everyone to a public bath house. We had very little sickness, no epidemics and no deaths. We arrived safe and sound in Chita. I was mobilized into the White Army in Chita and served as a medical officer. One day my superior officer ordered me to the front. I refused because I needed to be with my small daughter. He threatened to arrest me but I quoted the law which said that I could only be mobilized to a place where I could be with my child. I stayed in Chita as a medical officer. One day, while I was on duty and in charge, 200 wounded soldiers were brought in, many with typhus and typhoid. We had no extra beds in the hospital, so we spread hay on the floor and covered it with clean sheets. We stripped all the soldiers naked to reduce infection. There were no clean clothes available. When we were through I saw a dirty foot sticking out from under a pile of dirty linen. I saw it was an unconscious wounded officer, covered with dirt and lice. I told the orderly to move him. At first he refused, fearing the officer was infectious. I told the orderly that I would arrest him if he refused. Then together we moved this officer, who later recovered and lived. On my return home that day I found two lice on me. I told my husband that I was infected. I developed typhus two weeks later and was very ill. The entire staff who received the contingent of 200 men became infected. We were hospitalized together; one staff member died. The trouble was that during my illness my remaining staff still came to me for instructions and I got little rest. One day my headache was severe and I felt terrible. I told one nurse, abruptly and rudely, to get out, that I was sick and was as much a patient as anyone else. After recovery I returned to duty as a medical officer. When I came home to convalesce I was very thin and very hungry. I was alone, found some smoked fish and ate it all. This was the family ration for the week. You can imagine how I felt afterward.

Passport application for the Suntzeff family
Passport application for the Suntzeff family

Life in Chita was very hard. The climate was severe, the food supply limited, and housing crowded. Our household consisted of our three families totaling 12 people. We lived together in four rooms almost without furniture.

As the resistance to Communism collapsed, we were evacuated from Chita to Harbin, China. We lived there for two years. I did some work in a railroad hospital and some private practice. But there was very little opportunity for Russian professionals in China. My husband only found work as a master mechanic in the railroad shop. We decided to move to the United States, and did so in 1923.



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