publication date: Dec. 11, 2020
The Doctors’ Plot American style
By Natalya Rapoport, Ph.D., D.Sc.
Research Professor Emerita in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, University of Utah
Author of “Stalin and Medicine; Untold Stories,” World Scientific Publ., 2020.
This story is part of The Cancer Letter’s ongoing coverage of COVID-19’s impact on oncology. A full list of our coverage is available here.
President Donald Trump is hardly the first septuagenarian world leader to mistrust doctors and science.
By opining forcefully about COVID-19, Trump has subjected himself to comparison with Joseph Stalin, who in his final years spewed conspiracy theories about doctors and promoted the rise of spectacular charlatans.
Undeterred by his own bout of COVID-19 and apparently guided by advice of people with no expertise in infectious diseases, the president has continued to stage mask-free super-spreader political events.
Stalin and Trump are similarly curious about the healing power of household products. The Stalin era concluded with a nationwide obsession with soaking in baking soda solutions, and Trump has publicly wondered about using disinfectants to kill COVID-19 inside the human body.
And yet, there is an important difference between the two: Stalin was passionate about his kind of science, promoting a bevy of charlatans and ordering arrests and executions of genuine scientists. Trump, by contrast, has demonstrated a lack of interest in any form of science.
Stalin was a cunning, sly, highly intelligent satrap. One could never guess what he was thinking. Trump is the polar opposite: a compulsive communicator, a Twitter addict. While Stalin’s power was absolute, Trump has been held back by the structure of the American political system. Separation of powers was a hindrance, journalists a nuisance. And let’s not forget the elections.
Stalin’s butchery was eclectic. He killed engineers, writers, theater critics, army generals etc., etc.—millions of people. His hunting season lasted for three decades. And only when he directed his boomerang against leading medical scientists and doctors, it returned and killed the hunter.
During the first wave of the pandemic, President Trump’s denial resulted in many thousands of additional deaths in the United States, compared to countries that were better prepared and more deliberate. In contrast to Stalin’s atrocities, Trump’s attitude might be qualified as a “murder by negligence.” This wasn’t premeditated. It was closer to manslaughter.
That said, we must acknowledge that Trump was not the only person responsible for the initial disastrous response to COVID-19. At the start of the American epidemic, leading doctors, including Anthony Fauci and the CDC, also made grave mistakes in recommending against wearing masks and providing contradictory instructions. Fauci has since partly admitted his errors. Trump has not, causing great harm to this country and himself.
A broken relationship between the two—the leader of the country vs. the leading scientist in the field of infectious diseases—has been unhealthy for the country in a time of crisis.
In feuds between power and medicine, bystanders are the victims.
That was the case during Stalin’s hijacking of science and persecution of doctors. The same is true in the case of Trump’s handling of COVID-19.
The Doctors’ Plot
I have had the pleasure of meeting many of Stalin’s charlatans. My father, Yakov Rapoport, found them tragic, scary, and hilarious.
As despotism and medical quackery snowballed around him, my father was accused of taking part in the “Doctors’ Plot,” the QAnon of its time, a conspiracy theory that unifies all lesser conspiracy theories.
My father and his co-defendants were accused of having killed Soviet leaders and ordinary patients alike. These accusations were aimed primarily at doctors of Jewish origin.
The author’s father, Yakov Rapoport, a pathologist and one of the great wits of Soviet medicine, who was accused of conspiracy to commit medical murders as part of the imagined “Doctors’ Plot.”
According to propaganda, “murderers in white coats” were offing unsuspecting patients, including the country’s top leaders, by administering inappropriate treatment. There were also rumors that medicines dispensed by Jewish pharmacists were being laced with poison.
That conspiracy theory had profound public health consequences. A wave of panic swept the country. People were afraid to seek medical help; outpatient clinics and pharmacies stood empty.
Let the record show that my father had neither the inclination nor the opportunity to kill anyone. A pathologist, he didn’t operate on the living. Idiotic as this all seems today, my father narrowly escaped execution. Depending on whom you believe, the trial and the killings were set for either March 9 or March 14, 1953.
Luckily, Stalin died on March 5. A month after his death, the “killer doctors” were released from prison. The media reported that the case against the doctors was fabricated by the Ministry of State Security, MGB.
Life gradually returned to normal, but the seeds of the Doctors’ Plot survived through the years, producing ugly seedlings every now and then.
With Stalin’s patronage, Trofim Lysenko, a man who famously rejected the idea of heredity, was installed at the summit of the Olympus of pseudoscience.
This was bad for geneticists.
More than 3,000 genetic scientists were arrested. Some prominent geneticists, including Isaak Agol, Solomon Levit, Grigorii Levitskii, Georgi Karpechenko, and Georgi Nadson, were executed.
The famous Soviet geneticist, president of the Agriculture Academy (and Lysenko’s one-time mentor) Nikolai Vavilov, was among the victims. He was arrested in 1940 and died in prison in 1943. Years later, a colleague told my father about having met Vavilov in the Saratov prison.
Vavilov introduced himself to his cellmates as “Nikolai Vavilov, former Academy member, now dog shit.” An interrogator had given him that epithet, and Vavilov embraced it.
I ran into Lysenko once, at the door of the Institute of Biophysics, where my mother worked in the laboratory headed by Lina Stern, a genuine luminary who miraculously survived the Stalin era.
I drew back: Lysenko had the look of evil personified. (Upon his death, only one person, probably a relative or a housekeeper, followed his coffin.)
Why did Comrade Stalin feel compelled to exterminate geneticists?
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia published at the time tells us that there are two kinds of genetics. One, a bourgeois pseudo-science, holds that organisms are determined by heredity. The other, a progressive, Marxism-compliant genetics focuses on improving on nature.
With genuine geneticists discredited, Lysenko’s protégé Olga Lepeshinskaya, a bomb-throwing revolutionary in the biological sciences, made an epoch-making discovery of “the vital substance” (живое вещество).
Olga Lepeshinskaya, Stalin’s charlatan who claimed to have discovered “the vital substance” and recommended soaking in baking soda solutions.
University professors and schoolteachers were obligated to discuss vital substance at every lecture; I was taught it in primary school.
“Not only have they made a piece of candy of this shit, but they keep pushing it into our mouths and demanding that we express our delight at the taste,” my father said frequently at the time.
Lepeshinskaya’s dacha in the Village of Scientists was not far from ours, and she used to visit my father, proselytizing, much to his amusement.
She was a diminutive old woman who walked with a limp and used a cane.
She was always accompanied by her mongrel dog Romashka (daisy), who was trained to jump and pluck hats from the heads of Lepeshinskaya’s interlocutors.
My father wrote in his memoir that, in contrast to Lysenko, Lepeshinskaya had many endearing traits.
She was forthright and outspoken, with complete disregard for the rank of her opponent, and she exhibited extreme distaste for every manifestation of anti-Semitism. She was amiable and good-natured, and she brought up several orphans, to whom she gave an education and a start in life.
The vital substance
Let’s drill deeper into Lepeshinskaya’s theories.
Until the discovery of the cellular structure of organisms, there existed the mystical concept of blastema, which was supposed to contain all the vital properties, and from which all tissues of any living organisms, however complex, were formed.
The discovery of cells in the 1830s revolutionized medicine and biology. The great German scientist Rudolf Virchow applied the cellular principle to the analysis of disease in his book “Cellular Pathology,” published in 1858.
Virchow declared the cell as the cornerstone of scientific medicine. The publication of his book was a milestone in the history of medicine, dividing it into pre-Virchowian and Virchowian periods.
His cellular theory of the origin of disease replaced the humoral theory, dating back to Hippocrates, which held that the development of a disease resulted of a change in the organism’s “juices.”
Virchow supported the earlier discovery of a German scientist Robert Remak, according to which every cell is engendered by a mother cell by division. Virchow reformulated it as “each cell from a cell,” which was later complemented by the words “of the same genus.”
Lepeshinskaya claimed to have disproven the foundations of cellular theory. According to her, the basic properties of an organism were contained not in the cell, but in some amorphous vital substance, which was the bearer of all vital processes. Cells, with all their complex subcellular structures, were formed from this vital substance.
Lepeshinskaya didn’t bother to ascertain the nature of the vital substance—it was a vague, semi-mystical concept.
My father visited Lepeshinskaya’s lab, and wrote in his book that her conclusion had been reached through crude defects in histological technique. Her methods were so primitive and non-professional that she could not offer any convincing proof in support of her theory; her claims crumbled at the first critical glance.
Nonetheless, Lepeshinskaya claimed to have dealt a crushing blow to the cellular theory and Virchow’s formula “each cell from a cell.”
Lepeshinskaya’s vital substance theory had dragged science back to the times of blastema. Aspiring to revolutionize the science of biology, she dismissed all biologists who didn’t agree with her as stubborn and ignorant “Virchowians.”
Name-calling was a trait of Stalinism. My father, who had published an article about Virchow in the Medical Encyclopedia, was labeled a “vicious Virchowian” (злостный вирховьянец).
This label had denigrating political as well as scientific connotations; it had similar implications as the “Weismanist-Morganist” label in genetics that had sent thousands to prisons, labor camps, and death.
My father’s attitude of humorous indulgence and irony toward Lepeshinskaya and her discoveries changed after the dissolution of the Institute of Morphology, where my father served as deputy director for science.
Lepeshinskaya was crowned Queen of Biology. Soon after she won the 1950 Stalin Prize, my father accidentally ran into her in the Moscow House of Scientists and jokingly proposed to her.
His proposal was oft-repeated, with great delight throughout academic circles: “Olga, you are now the richest bride in Moscow. Do marry me, and we will make children from the vital substance.”
Lepeshinskaya’s discoveries were not confined to the vital substance.
She also gave mankind the gift of soda baths, which, she claimed, returned youth to the old and helped the young remain young.
In 1948 or 1949, she described this panacea at a session of the Academic Council of the Institute of Morphology, which was chaired by the director of the institute, Alexei Abrikosov, the father of the future Nobel Prize laureate in physics, who bears the same name.
The audience that included the most distinguished morphologists of Moscow was literally staggered by Lepeshinskaya’s announcement. She made no attempt to substantiate the effect of soda baths, but instead described the wonderful results obtained at the Barvikha Sanatorium, an upper-echelon establishment for party leaders and other elites.
One felt ashamed both for the speaker and for the audience forced to listen to these imbecilities.
I would compare this situation only to the one created by the question the current American leader asked about feasibility of using intravenous injections of cleaning liquids for clearing viruses from the body.
But there was at least some logic in Mr. Trump’s question: Really, if disinfectants are so effective in killing viruses on hands and surfaces, why not use them to clear viruses inside the body, including in the lungs?
By contrast, Lepeshinskaya’s statement about soda baths had come out of the blue, and after she finished, an awkward silence hung over the audience.
Yet, Lepeshinskaya’s idea of soda baths was widely publicized, and baking soda temporarily disappeared from store shelves.
This hysteria was short-lived. Baking soda reappeared, and the whole episode remains a joke in the history of Soviet biology.
Ravings of a dying horse — Бред умирающей лошади
The third player in this shameful farce was Gevorg Boshian, the author of the book “On the Origin of Viruses and Microbes,” published in 1949.
His ignorance was flagrant.
In this work, Boshian neglected elementary rules of bacteriology. However, at a conference held on medical sciences in Moscow University, an important functionary of the Ministry of Health made the following pronouncement while pointing at Boshian’s booklet:
“Old microbiology is dead! Here is new microbiology for you!”
On the basis of crude experiments, Boshian trampled Pasteur’s work into the mud, claiming to have established laws governing transformation of viruses into microscopically visible bacteria.
After Boshian’s presentation, during the discussion session, my father famously observed:
“I will not touch on the virological aspect of the book, as I am not an expert in virology. But the author here cites autopsies of horses, and I must say that autopsy reports were not written by any kind of a pathologist, but in all probability by the horse itself, on the brink of death. These are ravings of a dying horse.”
Later, in prison, this statement was used as incriminating evidence revealing my father’s vehement animosity toward advanced Soviet science.
In contrast to Lysenko and Lepeshinskaya, whose glory was of an enduring sort, Boshian’s glory was fleeting.
He was not smart enough to enlist the support of Lysenko. Worse, Lepeshinskaya accused him of plagiarism. He was soon exposed for the ignoramus and charlatan that he was, and his rank and awards were taken away.
“Invaluable work” – Stalin
Presented above are stories of pseudoscientists raving in the totalitarian regime of Stalin’s empire.
There were also stories of a different sort, tragic stories of genuine scientists trapped in the tenets of political and scientific doctrines.
One such story deals with the first-ever attempt at cancer biotherapy. This story is described in greater detail in my book, “Stalin and Medicine; Untold Stories.”
Here is a brief excerpt:
At the end of the 1940s, the medical world in Moscow was shaken by sensational news. Two well-known and respected microbiologists, Nina Klyuyeva and Grigory Roskin, announced that they had developed a preparation capable of curing various types of cancer. They called it KR (this preparation was later known in pharmacology as “Cruzin” or CR after its source, Trypanosoma cruzi).
Trypanosoma cruzi is a parasite that lives in the gastro-intestinal tract of the “kissing bug.” The insect is so called because it prefers to bite humans in the lips, on the border between skin and mucous membranes. The bite introduces the parasite into the human body, where it is carried by the bloodstream into various organs, destroying host cells.
This fact was the logical starting point for Klyuyeva and Roskin’s theory. Starting in the mid-1920s, Klyuyeva and Roskin were running their experiments on mice with inoculated breast cancer. The scientists found that when the Trypanozoma cruzi parasites were injected into the bloodstream of cancerous mice, they were selectively accumulated in the tumors, killing cancerous cells. Importantly, this tumor-destroying ability was retained by dead parasites.
The results of their experiments in mice were so encouraging that Klyuyeva and Roskin organized human trials using a wide variety of cancer types. Their clinical trial results did not allow rigorous statistical analysis; yet, the researchers considered them positive.
In 1946, Klyuyeva and Roskin described their work in a monograph entitled The Biotherapy of Cancer published in the USSR. The authors wanted to publish their manuscript in the West. They gave it to the founder and the first Academician Secretary of the Academy of Medical Sciences of the USSR, Dr. Vassily Parin, who was about to fly to the United States for a scientific exchange; his mission had been approved by Stalin himself.
In the Soviet Union, the excitement around the KR vaccine spilled over into the wider world outside of the medical circles. Stalin read the manuscript and wrote in the margins: “Invaluable work!”
The Soviet government considered this discovery as a trump card in their political game. That was when it was discovered that Klyuyeva and Roskin had handed their manuscript to Dr. Parin, who had offered it to American publishers.
Upon Dr. Parin’s return, both he and the creators of the vaccine were summoned to the Kremlin to explain themselves. The meeting was considered so important that Stalin himself was present from the beginning to the end.
The exceptional value of the discovery was not in doubt. The meeting was called to discuss how this work had found its way to the U.S. before the leaders of the Soviet Party and State had had a chance to familiarize themselves with it.
The authors were accused of “cosmopolitanism,” vanity, and slavish adulation of the West, but Stalin did not want to interrupt their valuable work and they were not arrested. They were let off with a “court of honor,” a public proceeding designed to shame them before their peers and the general public.
In contrast, academician Parin was arrested and sentenced to twenty-five years in prison. His three-month trip to America “for continuation of mutual exchange of scientific information” landed him in horrible Vladimirskaya prison.
Klyuyeva and Roskin asked my father to serve as an expert in their clinical trials. Unfortunately, as is not uncommon, the KR vaccine, though active in a test tube and in mice, proved useless against tumors in a human body. This was the conclusion my father came to. The subsequent large-scale clinical trials organized by the Soviet government, which my father oversaw as a pathologist, failed to confirm the effectiveness of the KR vaccine.
Klyuyeva and Roskin were trapped.
Indeed, who would dare declare KR ineffective after Stalin himself had called it invaluable! A public admission of this fact was tantamount to suicide. Only my recklessly brave father dared… and miraculously got away with it.
My father’s conclusions were later confirmed by other government experts, and work on KR stopped. The great anti-cancer vaccine, regrettably, became the discovery that never was…
I need to add that Klyuyeva and Roskin’s manuscript was never published in the USA due to the low quality of their initial clinical trials. Grigory Roskin soon died of a heart attack; Nina Klyuyeva outlived him by seven years.
Klyuyeva and Roskin, the genuine scientists with a tragic story, were actually the founders of cancer biotherapy, a promising field of current biomedical research. Their idea has lived on.
Parin spent seven years in Vladimirskaya prison, where he was subjected to horrible humiliation and tortures. He was one of the first to return from the Gulag after Stalin’s death. In 1955, he was re-elected as Academic Secretary of the Medical Academy.
The last laugh
None of the events described above could have occurred in the United States.
In the U.S., the constitutional and institutional safeguards have at times emitted excruciating creaking sounds, but have held up nonetheless.
Whatever his dreams might be, a U.S. president is precluded from executing, or even arresting scientists on a whim.
At most, Trump could fire an unwanted person from a task force.
But science is a resentful lady.
Joseph Stalin died in a puddle of urine, because at the time he suffered his final stroke, my father et al. were otherwise occupied, being tortured in the basement of the Lubyanka prison.
Trump got off much easier.
He has merely paid for his disdain for science with his presidency.