Chance will find a talented person: Philipp Jakob Karell


  • Maie Toomsalu Institute of Anatomy; Medical Collections of the Faculty of Medicine, University of Tartu



University of Tartu, Emperor’s physician in ordinary, starch cast, lithotripsy, milk therapy


Many people of Estonian ethnicity have found their way out of poverty by chance. Chance will favour the ambitious and hard-working and give them an opportunity to realise their dreams. Several examples can be found among Estonian scientists and cultural figures as well. One of those was Philipp Jakob Karell.

Philipp Jakob Karell, who came from of a family of peasant servants of an estate, graduated from the Medical Faculty of the University of Tartu in 1832 with the doctoral dissertation De rheumatismo uteri, and after graduation from the university, a piece of good luck gave the hard-working young man a chance to go to work in Saint Petersburg where, in 1849, he became the physician in ordinary to the Emperor’s family. He was the escort of Emperor Nicholas I on his travels both in Russia and abroad. Empress Alexandra Feodorovna was also Karell’s patient, and Alexander II also named him his physician in ordinary.

On his first travel abroad, he learned the use of starch casts for the treatment of bone fractures from L. Seutin, chief surgeon of Brussels Saint Peter’s Hospital, and in 1837 started to use them himself in the hospital of the Life Guards Cavalry Regiment.

When the Dutch physician Baron C. Heurteloup visited Russia, Philipp Karell was his companion and operating assistant in both Saint Petersburg and Moscow. Ph. Karell summarized what he had learned during the operations in the article “Vollständige Beschreibung von Baron Heurteloups Lithotripsie und Lithokenose durch Percussion, nach dessen eigenen mündlichen Mittheilungen und Papieren”, noting among other things that non-physicians should also recognize the initial symptoms of stone diseases (nephrolithiasis, cholelithiasis).

Karell’s method of milk therapy where skimmed milk had to be consumed after fixed time intervals, starting from 0.5–1.0 coffee cups 3–4 times a day and reaching two bottles a day on the second week, brought him international recognition. With the method of milk therapy, he achieved good results primarily in the treatment of diseases, connected with disturbances of water balance (cardiac, renal, gastrointestinal and liver diseases, and overweight).

Ph. Karell was also active in the foundation of the Russian Red Cross Society, participated in drafting of its statutes and belonged to its committee. He was also among the founders of the Russian Society of Surgery. On Karell’s initiative, sanitary companies were created in the Russian Army.

Although he worked in the Emperor’s court, Ph. Karell always remained an Estonian and repeatedly helped to acquire money from the Emperor for Estonian undertakings. He helped to publish the Estonian national epic Kalevipoeg (Son of Kalev) and always valued his friendship with F.R. Kreutzwald and N. Pirogov, which had started during his university days.


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