In Pursuit of Lost History: How a Forgotten Doctor Inspired a Novel

Jody Shields, author of The Winter Station, found the subject of her new novel after she stumbled across a reference to a Russian doctor’s memoir of the 1910–11 Manchurian plague in a medical journal. Both the doctor and the epidemic, which killed 60,000 people, had been lost to history.

Jody Shields, author of The Winter Station (starred review, LJ 11/15/17), found the subject of her new novel after she stumbled across a reference to a Russian doctor’s memoir of the 1910–11 Manchurian plague in a medical journal. Both the doctor and the epidemic, which killed 60,000 people, had been lost to history. Here, Shields writes about this discovery and the search to track down the mysterious physician, “the Baron,” who would become the main protagonist in her book.—Ed.

Meeting the Baron

The first encounter with the Baron took place in the library of the New York Academy of Medicine, a majestic 19th-century room with massive oak tables set alongside towering bookshelves and tall windows overlooking Central Park. This introduction, discovered in the pages of a medical journal, was brief and astonishing: a Russian aristocratic doctor had abandoned his privileged life to live in Manchuria. Caught up in a fierce plague in 1910, he had written a memoir, published in 1923, about his experience.

Thus, an obsession with the Baron began. He was pursued through libraries in several countries, and the gradual accumulation of information shaped itself into The Winter Station, with the Baron becoming the central character. The primary source material was problematic, hard to obtain and written in Russian or Chinese. Research was plodding trial and error, relieved by a few eureka discoveries and the encouragement of numerous librarians at the New York Public Library and several translators.

The original materials were typically fragile. Delicate and damaged books were protected in a string-tied cradle of a box, and the pages could only be turned with slow, tender care. Many of these books hadn’t been opened in years, and yet hidden among their pages was evidence of previous readers: ancient request slips, shriveled rubber bands, scrap paper with scrawled notes, paper clips, bookmarks.

Mysterious Manchuria

Kharbin, the Baron’s home and the Manchurian city ravaged by the epidemic, was built by the Russians, beginning around the turn of the 20th century. Manchuria itself was a mysterious territory, closed to the Chinese and the world for hundreds of years by Imperial decree. But Kharbin was unique: a dual city occupied by Russians and Chinese. There were few records of this young city, and those that still existed were usually inaccessible. This was a fresh set of research hurdles.

However, a handful of explorers from the National and Royal Geographic Societies provided inspiring accounts of their treks through unknown Manchuria; rhapsodic descriptions of vast forests, fields of blue iris, and rare wild birds that had no fear of humans. Unexpectedly, Scottish and British missionaries were the most valuable sources for accounts of everyday life in Manchuria. Dozens of firsthand [reports] by women and men detailed their attempts to convert the Chinese to Christianity. But they also described traditional Chinese religious customs, food, clothing, etiquette, medical treatment, tea ceremonies, folk tales, even fortune telling and street markets. In one intensely personal [narrative], a Presbyterian missionary mourned the loss of lives in his church and the surrounding towns and villages to the plague.

Uncovering the plague

Accounts by other doctors who had treated the plague were unearthed in a variety of international sources including medical journals, doctoral dissertations, even obituaries. Newspapers in the United States, China, Russia, Great Britain, France, and Japan covered the epidemic in sensational stories; only a few understood this highly contagious disease without a cure to be a global threat.

Because of his conflict with Chinese and Russian authorities, the Baron was cited in few official accounts of the Manchurian plague. However, he was a powerful but ghostly presence. Rebellious and outspoken, the Baron was even banned from an international plague conference in Manchuria for medical representatives. But his name surfaced in St Petersburg newspapers along with his scathing editorials.

The Baron’s memoir, Lungenpest-Epidemien in der Manschurei, was finally located at a rare bookshop in Germany. When [this author received it], the volume was practically pristine. Written in German, the book was profusely illustrated with photographs taken during the epidemic. Many [of the images] were surprisingly gruesome and their purpose was to act as evidence backing up the Baron’s claims against the Russian and Chinese governments [that they had mishandled] the [medical] crisis.

The Baron was a passionate, uncompromising man, and a whistleblower. During the years-long adventure of researching and writing The Winter Station, the Baron [served as this author’s] guide, and his memoir was an ever-present talisman. Perhaps his suspenseful and revealing look at the epidemic has resurfaced—after being overlooked for nearly 100 years—at a significant time. His book may be a message in a bottle.

Jody Shields is also the author of the best-selling novel The Fig Eater and The Crimson Portrait

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