The Story Behind the Object. The Plague Fort Photo Album

In the process of mounting the “Blood Count” exhibition, while reviewing the museum’s stock of historical evidence pertaining to the fight against infectious disease, a photo album was brought to the daylight. Its photographs provide an insight into the beginnings of mass production of vaccine and anti-plague serum in Russia. The early 1900s pictures taken at the Special Laboratory of the Imperial Institute of Experimental Medicine in Kronstadt show the so-called Plague Fort (1899‒1918) and its employees, who worked to wipe out one of the most horrendous diseases in the world, the plague. The Plague Fort album, part of the exhibition, has now become a historical museological object in itself, an example of ways of preserving collective memory stories of important achievements in the history of humanity. While the conditions and methods of vaccine production are different today, the ultimate goal of the medical science has always been and still is defeating disease. 

Keywords: exhibition Blood Count; the plague; vaccines; Special Laboratory of the Imperial Institute of Experimental Medicine; Russia; animal use in medical research; MHM holdings

The Blood Count exhibition contains an object which connects the past to the very current present. Thanks to a review of the museum’s stock of historical evidence pertaining to the fight against infectious disease, a plain-looking brown leatherette photo album has been brought out into a display case after 45 years on the museum shelves. The album’s contents may now reveal their story. This is especially relevant in 2021, within the context of the current pandemic, as the photographs in the album provide an insight into the beginnings of mass production of vaccine and anti-plague serum around the world, and in the Russian Empire in particular, more than 120 years ago. The 42 photographs taken in the early 20th century at the Kronstadt Special Laboratory of the Imperial Institute of Experimental Medicine show inside and outside views of the so-called Plague Fort (1899–1918) and portraits of its doctors and employees.

The manufacture of vaccines in laboratories began in the late 19th century. In 1894, Alexandre Yersin (1863–1943), a microbiologist with the Pasteur Institute, discovered the bacterium responsible for plague – Yersinia pestis, later named in his honour – and prepared the first anti-plague serum. Scientists then embarked on a worldwide effort to produce a plague vaccine, both in existing laboratories, like the Pasteur Institute in Paris, and new ones, like Waldemar Haffkine’s (1860–1930) laboratory in India or the Plague Fort in Kronstadt.

A view of Fort Alexander I, location of the Special Laboratory, nicknamed the Plague Fort 

This Special Laboratory, established on the initiative of Duke Alexander of Oldenburg (1844–1930) – the founder and patron of the Institute of Experimental Medicine, head of the Russian Plague Prevention Commission and General of the Imperial Guard – played an important role in the development of vaccination procedures in the Russian Empire.

As a relative of the Emperor, the duke held considerable influence within the Tsar’s administration. Thanks to his personal efforts, in 1898 the Special Laboratory gained isolated quarters at an abandoned military fortress, Fort Alexander I, on a small island off Kronstadt near St Petersburg.

Entrance gate to the Fort: centre, director of the laboratory Nikolay Berestnev (1904‒1908)

To start serum production, Duke Alexander also gave the laboratory a hundred horses from his personal stables. The initial serum needed to start the work was brought in from the Pasteur Institute in Paris. The anti-plague preparations manufactured at the fort were shipped all over the country to regions most affected by the disease – Astrakhan, Siberia, Crimea, Odessa. There were also shipments to Brazil, Austria-Hungary, Belgium and other countries.

In the early 20th century, the only known method for acquiring a vaccine was the administration of live pathogen cultures to animals. After the animal’s recovery, weakened – attenuated – pathogens were extracted from its blood. This blood was then treated to produce the valuable serum and vaccine preparation. If the animal survived these manipulations, its body was again subjected to the invasion of the deadly disease. The horse captured in the Plague Fort photo

Laboratory employees in the operation theatre with a horse used to produce the vaccine

is just one of the many animals who served to save humanity from the Black Death that extinguished millions of human lives over several centuries. Along with horses, the Special Laboratory’s stables also housed camels and reindeer; there were cages with monkeys, foxes, rabbits and other animals, and mice were bred and kept in glass jars to prevent the escape and dispersal of infected smaller laboratory animals. The horses turned out to be the best providers of vaccine material, as the disease proved to affect them in a comparatively milder way.

Passage in the Fort laboratory building

The general public was troubled by reports of several deaths at European laboratories. This resulted in attempts to close the lab in Kronstadt. Although the laboratory was located in an abandoned fort with strict isolation measures, its work on experiments involving live cultures of the dangerous disease excited people’s imaginations and gave rise to much rumour, speculation and debate. In 1900 the Plague Fort was visited by Ilya Eisen, a correspondent with the Niva weekly, who described the setup and activities of the laboratory in meticulous detail. The original of his 121-year-old article is available on the internet, at The laboratory was divided into a secure area for all work involving live cultures and infected animals, and a general living area for the Plague Fort’s inhabitants. Any movement of staff and visitors on laboratory premises was strictly regulated. Although pedantic safety measures were observed in dealing with the infected animals – the doctors and animal caretakers would use a special room to don protective garb and spray themselves with disinfectant before entering the stables, and step into a tray of disinfectant before and after visiting the stables – the risk of infection was very high. Compared to modern-day protective clothing, the doctors’ PPE was very primitive: rubber boots, trousers and a rubber hood for the head. Fearing even the slightest cuts, which at the time were thought to increase the risk of infection, some of the doctors stopped shaving. The smallest mistake or carelessness could endanger their lives.

Production of the plague serum

However, despite what now seem like comparatively rudimental protective measures, only two people died after accidental exposure to plague at the laboratory: doctors Vladislav Turchinovich-Vyzhnikevich (in 1904) and Manuel F. Schreiber (in 1907); another two recovered after contracting the disease – doctor’s assistant S. Poplavsky (in 1904) and doctor Lev Padlevsky (in 1907). The modern doctor is immeasurably better protected.

Because of its dangerous work, the laboratory was cut off from the outside world by strict security measures. The lone transport link to the nearby Kronstadt was provided first by the ferryboat Alexander I, and later by a small steamship that bore the meaningful name of Microbe. Special care was taken with food and other deliveries. The produce shipments were left at the fort’s wharf and picked up by the inhabitants when the ship had already left.

Stringent measures were also applied to the disposal of waste produced by the fort’s inhabitants – both human and animal. To prevent any contamination of the surrounding waters, which could dramatically impact the nearby Russian capital, the fort constructed special crematorium furnaces, where all manure and animal corpses were destroyed. The deceased laboratory employees were also cremated here; the urns containing their ashes were then held in the fort library. The fort even had its own sewer system, the likes of which were not available to most inhabitants of St Petersburg.

Despite the complicated and isolated living and work circumstances the former military fort became a citadel of science in the fight against plague, one of the most horrific infectious diseases in the history of humanity. Right from its official opening in 1899, the laboratory was a hub for visiting doctors, scientists, microbiologists and students, who worked on their scientific papers and took part in experiments. The fort’s research facilities were also used by the first female doctors.

Doctors I. Shurupov, M. Schreiber and N. Kohl-Yakimova at the laboratory

This continuous flow of visitors led to an increasing involvement of imperial bureaucrats in the work of the laboratory and the imposition of strict gendarmerie supervision on the Plague Fort employees. In the late 19th and early 20th century the Russian scientists’ work was also negatively affected by the state’s repressive activities after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, as well as by the Russo-Japanese war, the 1905 Russian Revolution and the advent of the First World War.

As we thumb through the pages of the album and peruse the old photographs, we are reminded of the struggles the scientists have had and still have to endure in a world divided by opinions and interests – funding, political supervision, bureaucratic arbitrariness, vaccine prejudice, seclusion from the outside world and the pain of seeing their colleagues lose their lives.

Doctors at the plague laboratory
Doctor L. Padlevsky, who contracted and survived plague, with his colleagues

The precise date when the album was assembled is not known. Judging by its appearance, it could have been put together in the 1960s, at the Nikolay Gamaleya Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology in Moscow (the very same institute which in 2020 created the Covid-19 vaccine Sputnik V). The album was perhaps assembled by institute research associate Yuri Milenushkin, or one of his colleagues, to preserve the historical legacy amassed at the institute.

The goal and purpose of medicine all over the world has always been and will be the vanquishment of disease. The road to this victory depends on so many factors. New approaches are sought and found, ones that are safer for humans and less harmful to the natural world. We no longer acquire vaccines by injecting large numbers of animals with live pathogen cultures. The fight of modern scientists against deadly diseases is still being immortalized and will eventually find its place on museum shelves. But the Covid era will no longer be reduced to a small collection of photographs in a brown leatherette book that bears the Russian inscription ‘Alybom’ (‘Photo Album’).

To modern eyes glancing into the past, the Plague Fort photo album itself is a historical museological object, an example of how collective memory stories of important human achievements have been recorded and preserved. This modest, lovingly crafted grey cardstock album, with photo captions that have been typed out on white paper, carefully cut out and glued onto the pages, is an artifact of the past – and, at the same time, a testament of how far we have advanced in both science and museology over the past 100 years.



Milenushkin, Y. Znachenie dejatel’nosti Instituta eksperimental’noj mediciny v razvitii uchenija o chume i v bor’be s nej [Contribution of the Institute of Experimental Medicine to Plague Research and the Fight Against This Disease]. Yezhegodnik Instituta eksperimental’noj mediciny AMN SSSR [Almanac of the Institute of Experimental Medicine] Vol. 6, pp. 525–534. [In Russian]

Eisen, I. Bor’ba s chumoj [The Fight Against Plague]. Niva weekly magazine1900, No. 48, pp. 952–959, 974–975. Available at: 14 Feb. 2021). [In Russian]

Published: March, 2021

Inga Vigdorčika

Inga Vigdorčika



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