The Soviet-German Syphilis Expedition to Buriat Mongolia in 1928
In 1928, a team consisting of eight German and eight Soviet medical researchers departed for Kul’skoe in a remote part of the Buriat-Mongolian Autonomous Republic of the USSR. Their goal was to examine endemic syphilis and the effect of the anti-syphilis drug, Salvarsan, used to treat the disease.
This team departed with much amplification but it was not intended to be a scientific achievement in venereology. For the Germans, this expedition was a carefully calculated “opening to the east”. It was a way for Germany to secure scientific advantages with foreigners, something it had lost during previous years with the outcome of World War I. For the Soviet researchers, this medical expedition was an intricate part of German connections.
The Soviet-Germany syphilis expedition to Kul’skoe in 1928 is an unusual model of the dynamics of cross-national science. It took the governments three years to set up the expedition, starting in 1925. The negotiations drew in the foremost individuals in the Soviet government (predominantly from Narkomzdrav and Narkompros), the Russian Academy of Sciences and the All-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries (VOKS).
Dr. Max Jessner, head of the German delegation, claimed in his last report that interest in an expedition of this type had been “stirred up” by the prominent German neuro-psychiatrist, Karl Wilmanns. After the financial side had been arranged, Buriat Mongolia was chosen as the site.
During the expedition, both German and Soviet medical researchers worked side by side. They asked in-depth questions on the Buriat population, asking them intimate questions about their sexual lives. “It would have been optimal, the Russians acknowledged, to carry out a “house-to-house” study but the Buriat settlements (often composed of two or three iurtas or huts) were separated one from the other by several kilometres; in the interests of economy of effort, the Russian researchers restricted their interviews to those syphilitics who came to the out-patient clinic”.
One of the problems with the expedition was finding translators who could communicate with the Buriat population and the researchers themselves, as well as not being “class enemies, hostile to the aims of Soviet medicine”. To ensure that the Soviets gained a 100 percent response rate, the Russians forced the Buriats to fill out a questionnaire before granting access to treatment with Salvarsan.
However, three months after the expedition started, on the third September, the expedition ended. The German researchers had expected to find levels of tabes, aortitis and paralysis substantially lower than those among populations that had been treated with Salvarsan. However, what they found was no discernible evidence that the syphilis in Buriat Mongolia was any different than in Europe.
The Soviet researchers had expected come to this region to discover how the disease was being spread. They determined that the Buriats passed it on primarily through sexual habits.
The Soviet-Germany syphilis expedition is an interesting period in time when two nations, who had just gone through World War I, were able to work together.