The title of this chapter refers to a Latin phrase, Fiat Experimentum in Corpore Vili, which translates as Let an experiment be done on a worthless body. In the history of medicine this expression belongs to an era when bodies of executed criminals or even live convicts were subjected to medical dissection or experimentation.
The first exercises in self-discovery, self-loathing, and self-restraint that our protagonist makes, are set against a backdrop of uncertain times in the Russian Imperial succession. After the death of Peter the Great, the Royal House of Romanoff was left with a small crowd of male and female contenders. I find it hard enough to keep the names of this bunch of nephews, cousins, and half-siblings straight in my head, let alone their husbands, wives, and lovers (the former two usually came from any one of the obscure small principalities of the Holy Roman Empire). The key fact is that it was Elisaveta, one of Peter the Great’s daughters, who worked her way to the throne by 1742 after the death of Empress Anna in 1740. Elisaveta was famous for her good looks, pleasant temper, and sexual appetite. She is said to have been partial to her guardsmen, in particular those of the Preobrazhensky grenadier regiment.
During Elisaveta’s party-time reign, the future Catherine the Great was but a young German ingénue, a foreigner wife of a yet another mediocre royal nephew or cousin (Peter) and a young mother of another royal baby boy (Paul). But by the time of Elisaveta’s death, this lady, who still spoke Russian with a German accent, was coming into her own. Unlike Elisaveta, Catherine did not sleep with her guardsmen, but she nonetheless managed to secure their dedication and support when she decided to force her own husband, Peter Romanoff, to abdicate. Next, Gregory Orloff, her lover, took it upon himself to remove the husband in a more “permanent” manner. After this unpleasant necessity everything else settled down nicely; and to prepare for a long and productive reign, Catherine decided to protect herself and her son Paul from smallpox, then ubiquitous. She invited the famous British Dr. Dimsdale to St. Petersburg, and even volunteered to be the very first person on the Russian soil to be inoculated (to give an example that the whole court would follow). Dr. Dimsdale would have none of it, of course. In the historical record, several soldiers of the guard stepped forth to volunteer. The description of Dr. Dimsdale’s procedure that I have in the book is pretty accurate.