2023.03.18 12:00

The pioneering Lithuanian doctor who told people to wash

Barbora Burbaitė-Eidukevičienė was the first Lithuanian woman to become a doctor in the 19th century. She was also the first to educate society about dirt.

The choice to study medicine was strongly influenced by her family, which was wealthy and enlightened.

Two of her brothers were priests, and her family contributed to the promotion of Lithuanian identity, supported the bookmakers, and advocated for the national movement. These ideas were also taken up by Barbora.

In the 19th century, there were not many opportunities for women to pursue higher education. It took 33 attempts for the first woman in the world to receive higher education.

Since the Russian Empire did not allow women to study and Vilnius University was closed, Barbora went to study at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. The university was one of the first in Europe to allow women to study.

“Women living in Tsarist Russia had several options – either to go abroad, to Western Europe, or to study at the Red Cross Society,” said Viktorija Šimkutė, a lecturer at the Institute of Health Sciences of the Faculty of Medicine of Vilnius University.

“The Red Cross Society was founded in the second half of the 19th century, but women could only become nurses instead of getting a doctorate,” she added.

Barbara chose the University of Zurich and completed her higher education there, obtaining a diploma in 1892, which gave her the right to work as a doctor in medicine and surgery. The diploma bears the solemn wording: “The most learned girl”.

But even after receiving her diploma, Barbora could not return to Lithuania – the laws of the Russian Empire forbade women to work as doctors, so Burbaitė worked for eight years in German clinics.

One of seven female doctors

When they saw that many women were rushing to study at the University of Zurich, the Russian imperial authorities also started to consider whether to allow women to study, according to Šimkutė.

At that time, Tsarist Russia started to set up higher education courses for women, where they could study certain subjects, including medicine, and in some cases were granted the rights of a free listener.

​​After the laws changed in the early 20th century to allow women to work as doctors, Burbaitė returned from Germany. However, she still had to pass the qualification exams at the University of Kyiv and became one of only seven female doctors and the only Lithuanian doctor in Vilnius.

According to Šimkutė, the majority of society had a favourable view of female doctors.

“People were quite willing to go to doctors – women at that time were more altruistic, more helpful to the needy. As medical help was hard to come by at the time, free and altruistic help was important,” she said.

Soldiers also usually spoke highly of the nurses they worked with, writing in their memoirs that it was the women who gave the wounded soldiers all the care and help they needed.

Burbaitė’s knowledge and willingness to help patients for free made her famous not only in Vilnius.

According to Šimkutė, Barbora extended a helping hand to all her friends. She was a famous eye doctor, donated money, and helped people in need, as well as friends who got in trouble for their political activities.

She was also concerned about the cleanliness of her patients and educated people.

“She taught patients to wash, to keep clean, which was probably the most important thing at the time because communicable diseases were spreading,” said Šimkutė. “At the end of the 19th century, a theory emerged that diseases spread through bacteria.”

She saved many patients from impending blindness caused by trachoma, a disease caused by poor sanitation and filth.

“It was a common infection at that time, and Barbora was one of the doctors who made a significant contribution to improving the situation,” added Šimkutė.

However, Burbaitė was not only involved in the treatment of eye diseases but also provided other forms of assistance and education.

“Doctors usually did not limit themselves to their medical practice but also engaged in educational activities, published newspapers and magazines, and contributed to disease prevention. Barbora was also involved in political activities,” said Šimkutė.

Accused of high treason

However, there is no evidence that Burbaitė was actively involved in political activities. She may have supported the ideas of the Social Democratic Party for its values.

After her husband left for Russia, she moved to Šiauliai in northern Lithuania. There, various meetings were held in the doctor’s office, which was a convenient place to meet without arousing the suspicions of the gendarmes, even though Burbaitė was under surveillance.

Burbaitė was also the editor of a newspaper and in 1922 was accused of inciting a rebellion, a coup, and was arrested together with several colleagues.

After Lithuania exchanged political prisoners with the Soviet Union at the beginning of 1923, Burbaitė regained her freedom and went to Moscow, presumably to re-establish relations with her husband. In 1925, she moved to Belarus.

In 1937, Barbora was imprisoned. Two years later, she was accused of high treason by the Soviet authorities and shot.

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