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Anton Chekhov’s “wife” and “mistress”

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Anton ChekhovFriday 29 January (2010) was the 150th anniversary of the birth of the playwright Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, in Taganrog, in present day Ukraine.

When his father’s grocery business failed the family were forced to flee to Moscow, and it was there, at the age of 20, that Anton began submitting short pieces of humourous fiction to fund his study of medicine at the University of Moscow.

Some four years after setting up his medical practice, Chekhov wrote to a friend: “Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress.” Many of his patients could not afford the doctor’s bills, so he used payment from his literary work to subsidise his practice.

By 1884, Chekhov had contracted tuberculosis, and although he concealed his symptoms from friends and colleagues, his condition gradually worsened and in 1887, after a pulmonary haemorrhage, he retired from active medical practice and devoted himself further to the study of medicine.

Chekhov’s medical training had a significant influence on his literary work, and he asserted time and again his concern for accuracy in recording life’s details. His characters and plots reflected real life situations, and he created hundreds of characters who show weakness, passivity and ineffectiveness. They include an array of 30 medical doctors who are hindered by various problems and working conditions.

His works often describe specific diseases and their treatment, especially mental disorders suffered by characters in several of his plays, including depression, paranoia and nervous breakdown.

In 1890, Chekhov travelled to the penal colony of Sakhalin, an island north of Siberia, where he carried out a census of 10,000 convicts sentenced to life imprisonment. His report included descriptions of the dreadful conditions and brutal beatings he witnessed and was considered a landmark study in social medicine. Such was its effect upon the Russian public that corporal punishment was abolished for women in 1897 and for men in 1904.

In 1892, in a typically generous gesture, and despite his own poor health, Chekhov unselfishly acted as the medical supervisor of a rural district in a campaign against an imminent cholera epidemic.

By 1898, worsening ill-health forced him to sell his estate near Moscow, and he moved to the warmer climes of Yalta in the Crimea. His tuberculosis grew steadily worse, and he died in the Black Forest spa resort of Badenweiler on 2 July 1904.

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