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I’m not a doctor. But if I was a doctor, I would think often about the implications of saving peoples' lives. I would wonder:

What will this person do with his remaining days?

Will he fall in love?

Will he change the world?

Will he sacrifice Moscow to the French, luring Napoleon’s army into a trap set up by nature and the Russians to ultimately defeat the bite-sized dictator?

If this last was the thought of 18th century neurosurgeon Jean Joseph Xavier Ignace Massot (1754-1837), the answer would be yes, according to a recent study published in Neurosurgical Focus.

A whole-headed Kutozov
By R.M. Volkov/Public domain/Wikimedia Commons

A group of researchers spent more than two years piecing together the details of the life and near-deaths of Mikhail Illarionovich Golenishchev-Kutuzov (1745-1813), a famed Russian military leader who thwarted Napoleon’s attempt to conquer Russia. According to the scientists:

Through the years, having been recorded in various writings in Russian and French, translations from Russians to French and second- and third-hand accounts influenced by political, military, and diplomatic intrigue and variations, many details of Kutozov’s injuries have become confused, are unconfirmed, or remain unexplored.

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They continued:

We accessed the primary source materials, as well as examined and collated recent information on aspects of Kutuzov and his injuries, to describe the events, historical implications, and neurosurgically related treatments of the time. The details about the surgeon who treated Kutuzov and the surgical procedures that likely saved his life have not been previously described or placed in the context of the events of the period. The unsung hero of this saga may in fact be a masterful and trusted French surgeon of the Russian army, about whom we know relatively little, “M. Massot.”

The scientists say that Massot, a talented surgeon who treated wounded Russian soldiers, used cutting edge technology to save Kutuzov from not one, but two shots to the head: During battles in 1774 and 1788. Massot reportedly said in 1789, soon after the second operation: "If we had not been the witnesses…we would have considered the story about Kutozov's wounds a fairy tale. It must be believed that fate appoints Kutozov to something great because he was still alive after two injuries that were a death sentence by all the rules of medical science." A little humble-braggy, but apparently warranted.

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Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.