Борис Бурда
Author: Boris Burda
Journalist, writer, bard. Winner of the «Diamond Owl» intellectual game «What? Where? When?»
Liberal ArtsNomina
7 minutes for reading

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Vladimir Filatov – Ukrainian ophthalmologist nominated for the Nobel Prize

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Vladimir Filatov - Ukrainian ophthalmologist nominated for the Nobel Prize
Share material




Ancient tales said that the Earth stands on some kind of animals. Some of them specified that it stood on the three whales. To argue with this is as wrong as, for example, with the existence of dragons. When my children asked me if dragons exist, I answered them: “Yes, but only in fairy tales”, and everyone was happy.

The appeal of this simple theory leads many to place more than just Earth on the three whales. For example, in the Garden of Sculptures of the Odessa Literary Museum (I just mentioned it in the last article from this series) on three whales stands the symbol of our city – Odessa-mother.


ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Vladimir Filatov - Ukrainian ophthalmologist nominated for the Nobel Prize
Monument to Odessa-mother


Each of these whales bears an antique symbol. On the first – the rod-caduceus of the god of trade Hermes, on the other – the lyre of the patron of the arts Apollo, and on the third – a bowl with a snake of the god of healing Asclepius. It means that the three whales on which Odessa stands are medicine, art and the merchant fleet.

Good whales, you can really resist them – they still keep the city afloat even in our not very favorable times. Today our story will go about a wonderful person who symbolizes the strength and influence of one of the Odessa whales, medicine.




Which of the outstanding Odessa doctors should be considered a symbol of medicine in our city – it is better not for Odessa residents to decide, from the outside it is better to know. True, many people see our city as a strange place, where they say, all the time confusing cases, declensions and conjugations.

I remember how a pretty girl-bard from a distant city on the Volga asked me: “Borya, are you really from Odessa? Why don’t you say “shya!” Why don’t you say “ili!” Some kind of Muscovite, you don’t even swear”. Well, she greatly exaggerated – Muscovites are different …

However, now it is more appropriate to recall another bard – I performed with him at one concert in the Polytechnic Museum, famous for the sixties, and met with pleasure. It’s nice to watch a person performing brightly and beautifully in his tenth decade, after ninety!

His name was Yevgeny Agranovich, and some of his songs are known to everyone – for example, “I drank birch sap in a spring forest.” But we are talking about another of his songs, beginning with the words: “Of all the cities known in the world, I respect Odessa the most, I sing of its wonderful shores and with the thought of it I get up and fall asleep” …

The last lines of this collection of pseudo-Odessism is like this: “There are fights with obscenities and without obscenities, and if your eye is knocked out in Odessa, then Filatov will insert it.” You really need to be an Odessa attraction to get into such a text for such a place!




True, the great doctor Vladimir Filatov was born not in Odessa, but in the village of Mikhailovka, located in the Mordovian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. For Odessa, this is not critical – you come from anywhere, you live in Odessa, like all residents of Odessa, and you are an Odessa citizen, and no one cares where your grandfather is from.

His father Petr Fedorovich and his four uncles were doctors, all good, famous and successful. Nil Fedorovich stood out in particular – one of the founders of Russian pediatrics. Now three children’s hospitals, in St. Petersburg, Moscow and Penza, bear his name.

It is good that Vladimir Filatov had such a family, otherwise he, perhaps, would have suffered with the choice of a profession. From an early age he was an extremely versatile gifted person, creative, was engaged in poetry, and music, and philosophy, spoke several foreign languages.

Why did he decide to become a physician, moreover, he immediately chose ophthalmology, the art of healing eye diseases? They say that even in his youth he saw a blind man with a stick, was amazed and exclaimed: “Everyone should see the sun!” Then this phrase became the motto of the institute he created.

Too literary story, can you believe it? You know, it doesn’t matter. Maybe they came up with something … What is important is that for this person this story does not seem unnatural and alien. For almost all of his life, he made this story about him sound absolutely normal.




Probably, his father, to whom he treated with the greatest respect, also played a role in the choice of specialization – he, in addition to surgery, also specialized in eye diseases. In those days, the situation with these diseases was alarming, and they were treated poorly – the thorns were especially dangerous, which blinded a lot of people.

If the thorn did not completely cover the eye, sometimes iridoectomy helped – a complex operation in which a hole, an artificial pupil, was made in the cornea, where it had not yet become cloudy. But if the entire cornea darkened, nothing could be helped – the person remained blind.

Even then, attempts were made to transplant a transparent cornea from an animal donor (most often a sheep) to the patient. But for a long time nothing came of it, and for surgeons all over the world – the transplanted cornea quickly became cloudy, and the person remained completely blind.

Young Filatov began studying ophthalmology in Moscow, during the holidays he worked as an assistant with his father in the Simbirsk hospital. After graduation, he was a resident – first in Simbirsk, and then in Moscow. And in 1908, Professor Golovin called him to work in Odessa, where he spent almost all of his further life.




In Odessa, in 1908, he defended his doctoral dissertation, the topic of which was called “The doctrine of cellular poisons in ophthalmology.” It was part of his attempts to figure out why, after all, the cell transplant certainly becomes cloudy – the body suppresses foreign tissues.

But he made his first major discovery not in ophthalmology, but in skin grafting (although he first used it for eyelid transplantation). This is the so-called “Filatov stalk” – an area of ​​the patient’s own skin, which is used for transplantation, leaving the pedicles connecting it with the previous place (sometimes it is transferred in several stages).

At first, it didn’t work with a corneal transplant – both around the world and with Filatov personally. He made his first attempt on February 28, 1912. However, he failed – the transplanted cornea became clouded, the patient’s vision did not return.

Vladimir continues his experiments and works a lot. In 1909, he was already a privat-docent, in 1911 – a professor, heading the department of eye diseases. He has held this position for 41 years practically without a break, excluding evacuation and other annoying accidents (more on them later).




It is not to say that the corneal transplant case did not move at all. Back in 1905, the Austrian physician Eduard Zirm performed the first successful human-to-human cornea transplant. The operation was successful, the patient retained his vision and could even continue to work.

Filatov received information about Zirm’s work, and it inspired him to search for new opportunities. Zirm did not solve many problems – that time there were no high-quality microscopes or microsurgery instruments for such operations. As a result, there were very few successful operations of this kind.

Filatov and his colleague Martsinkovsky overcame these difficulties step by step, new tools and technologies for the preservation of the cadaveric cornea were developed. As a result, on May 6, 1931, Filatov used the cornea of ​​a corpse preserved according to his method for transplantation and achieved success – the cornea did not become cloudy, the operation was successful!

Of course, there was a lot of work ahead – back in 1933, of the 96 blind eyes operated on by Filatov, only 24 began to see. But more and more often the operation began to work out, and people who had previously had 1–5% of normal vision after the operation had 70–100% over and over again.




But right in the midst of successful work, on February 20, 1931, it had to be interrupted – Filatov was arrested by the OGPU for participating in a “counter-revolutionary military officer organization”, and spent two months in prison, from time to time signing confessions and every time they were worse and worse.

For example, he signed the following confessions: “From the very beginning of the Soviet regime, I was not a supporter of it … The discontent that I felt … prompted me to dream of intervention.” At that time it was already a shooting. How he agreed to give such testimony is still unclear, perhaps he was not tortured, intimidation was enough …

He wrote: “I resolutely repent of my crime and completely disarm in relation to the Soviet regime. Admitting my guilt, I ask you to spare me and forgive me for my crime”. It seems that the GPU realized that after such words, he is no longer dangerous for the authorities.

On April 20, 1931, the GPU of the Ukrainian SSR decided to release Filatov on his own recognizance. In the future, Filatov’s relations with the Soviet government were quite positive – he became a part of it, being a deputy of the Supreme Soviet of the Ukrainian SSR of four convocations, from 1938 to 1956, until his death.


By joining the Huxley friends club, you support philosophy, science and art




Filatov returned to work and continued to operate. And, as always happens, rumors spread throughout the country that previously incurable diseases leading to blindness have now been learned to heal. The nice thing is that these rumors had certain reasons.

As a result, such a number of patients poured into Odessa that in order for at least some of them to be accepted, the Institute of Experimental Ophthalmology was opened in 1938 – now it is called the V.P. Filatov.

Sometimes they say: the reason for these advances is that Filatov was summoned to perform an operation on the most important patient of the USSR – Joseph Stalin. It was completed successfully, and as a reward, the doctor asked to open such an institute. There is nothing to prove it, it is impossible to refute it at all.

In any case, he received the Stalin Prize of the first degree in 1941 – for his achievements in ophthalmology. In the future, he was not spared and other honorary awards – and four Orders of Lenin, and the Order of the Patriotic War of the first degree, and the title of Hero of Socialist Labor.

In 1950 he was nominated for the Nobel Prize for the development of a method for transplanting the cornea of the eye



At the beginning of the war, the Filatov Institute was evacuated – first to Pyatigorsk, then to Tashkent. There, on the basis of evacuation hospital No. 1262, the Ukrainian Institute of Eye Diseases in a reduced volume was restored by order of the Government of the USSR. Filatov remained its director and chief consultant.

Filatov spends all his strength on the treatment of wounded soldiers. Eye injuries, as a rule, were combined with severe damage to the eyelids, the orbit of the eye, and often to the face. In such cases, the plastic method proposed by him earlier served well. Another of his inventions, tissue therapy, was also actively used.


ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Vladimir Filatov - Ukrainian ophthalmologist nominated for the Nobel Prize
Filatov’s book on tissue therapy


It was based on Filatov’s assumption that tissue conservation under special conditions (low temperature for animal tissues and lack of light for plant tissues) leads to the accumulation of substances in the transplant material that stimulate life processes in the graft.

Filatov called these substances biogenic stimulants and believed that, being introduced into a sick organism, they activate its physiological reactions and lead to recovery. They are still in use now, and the process of studying them is not yet complete.

After the end of the war, Filatov, together with his colleagues, returned to Odessa and continued to work. The institute grew, continued to be built, and its fame spread, streams of patients came from all over the USSR and even from abroad, and Filatov continued to work until the very end of his life.




Awarded a full set of titles and ranks, academician of the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR and the Academy of Medical Sciences of the USSR, he was able to afford a lot that was not encouraged in the USSR. First of all – demonstrative, quite sincere and civically active religiosity.

After the destruction of the cathedral in Odessa in 1936, it was planned to place a public toilet on the site of its altar. Filatov made sure that a fountain with “Filatov’s vase” – a marble bowl in the shape of a flower – was installed in the place of the altar. After the restoration of the cathedral, it was moved to the site of the first city fountain on Cathedral Square.


ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Vladimir Filatov - Ukrainian ophthalmologist nominated for the Nobel Prize
Vase Filatov


Before each difficult operation, Filatov received the blessing of the bishop, and after that he ordered a thanksgiving service. He had an “Easter costume” he had bought back at Muir and Merils, in which he went to church on Sundays, although it could have been dangerous that time.

Unfortunately, during the revolution, this led him to participate in the near-church Black Hundred organizations. The writer Semyon Lipkin remembers seeing him handing out leaflets calling for Jewish pogroms. Nothing to do – Filatov was as he is, you can’t hide …

One must remember everything about a person, not what is convenient. For example, do not forget that, having received the Stalin Prize in 1941, Filatov asked to distribute part of the money to orphanages, and to give the other to the St. Demetrius Church in Odessa. Now this is history – but only the whole story.




People were queuing up for an appointment in the evening, and Filatov set aside several hours three times a week for consultations with the most seriously ill patients. According to his disciples, he never said “no” to hopeless patients, arguing that it is a great sin to take away a person’s faith.

Vladimir Filatov was not only a scientist, but also a clinician, a brilliant surgeon, a talented teacher and an artist, an interesting storyteller and a cheerful conversationalist. He devoted a lot of time to writing his memoirs, and in the spring the scientist went to Arcadia and to the Small Fountain, where he painted sketches.

He also wrote poetry, which was signed by “Votalif” (this is his name, read the other way around). He could joke hard – for example, having received a portrait of himself against the background of an image of an eye as a gift, he asked what would have been given to him if he were a gynecologist …

Letters to the institute asking for help came from all over the world and were addressed in the most bizarre way. For example, “Odessa. Polyclinic for eye operations “, “Odessa, Institute of Experimental Improvements”, “Odessa, polyclinic by the Black Sea”, “Odessa, the chief paramedic for the eyes”, “Black Sea, Filatov”.

As for the Black Sea, he clearly loved it. He always took off the blindfolds from the eyes of his patients, taking them to the Black Sea coast, just to the other side of the building of the institute standing by the sea, which was named after Filatov in 1945, during Filatov’s life.


ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Vladimir Filatov - Ukrainian ophthalmologist nominated for the Nobel Prize
Filatov Institute




On October 30, 1956, Filatov died of a cerebral hemorrhage. But the memory of him is alive – first of all, at his institute, that is still actively working, helping many people to preserve and improve their eyesight, and still bears his name. His office is preserved in the form of a museum, the same as with him.

One of the largest streets of the Odessa sleeping area Cheryomushki bears his name. There are streets named after him in Minsk, Ulyanovsk, and in a number of other cities. There is also an asteroid named after him – it was discovered back in 1982. A postage stamp of the USSR with his image was also issued.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Vladimir Filatov - Ukrainian ophthalmologist nominated for the Nobel Prize

There are also monuments to Filatov – both in Odessa, practically native to him, and in Dnepr. His honorary titles and awards have already basically been listed – I will mention, perhaps, not very typical for Soviet doctors, a medal in memory of the 50th anniversary of the episcopal consecration. Yes, he was so …


ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Vladimir Filatov - Ukrainian ophthalmologist nominated for the Nobel Prize
Monument to Filatov in Odessa


By joining the Huxley friends club, you support philosophy, science and art
Share material

Spelling error report

The following text will be sent to our editors: