In the early 1960s, the Soviet Union sent a team of researchers to Antarctica to explore the frozen desert at the extreme south of the Earth. Thirteen of those researchers were stationed at Novolazarevskaya Station, located in what could fairly be called the middle of nowhere. (Here’s a map.) Extreme isolation was part of the job, and in April of 1961, it caused a problem for a scientist there named Leonid Rogozov. On April 29, 1961, Rogozov awoke feeling awful — disorientation, nausea, and a low fever — and as the day progressed, he began feeling a sharp pain in his abdomen. The diagnosis became clear by the next day. Rogozov had appendicitis. His appendix would have to be surgically removed, and likely soon.
The bad news — other than the diagnosis and need for surgery, that is — is that Novolazarevskaya Station had seen harsher weather than usual over the weeks prior, even taking its location into account. There was no way for Rogozov to get back to the Soviet Union or even to a larger Antarctic base — the surgery had to happen at Novolazarevskaya.
The good news? First, an appendectomy, even then, was a pretty simple procedure — if you were a trained surgeon, at least. And Rogozov was in luck, because one of the thirteen men stationed at Novolazarevskaya was a trained surgeon.
Unfortunately for Rogozov, he was that surgeon.
Rogozov was faced with an impossible but, if you think about it, relatively easy choice. On the one hand, he could do nothing and, almost certainly, die within a few days (and painfully at that). Or he could operate on himself. He chose the latter.
For two hours, assisted by a meteorologist and driver (and no, neither had any surgical experience, except perhaps as patients), Rogozov was both surgeon and patient. He performed the surgery mostly by touch — he tried to use a mirror but, as he noted in his journal, the inverted image caused as much confusion as insight. He needed to take periodic breaks to rest and battle the pain and nausea, and he nicked himself with one of his incisions along the way. But in the end, the surgery was a success. Rogozov survived and, after two weeks of recuperation (still at Novolazarevskaya Station), returned to his regular job duties. After the expedition concluded, he returned to the Soviet Union and was hailed as a hero — his resiliency and grit was heralded as a testament to the Soviet Will. The government awarded him the Order of the Red Banner of Labour, one of the nation’s highest honors.
Rogozov lived for many years after, too. He died in 2000 at the age of 66.
From the Archives: Two Bad Teeth: Grover Cleveland’s secret surgery.
Related: “Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent” by Gabrielle Walker. 4.8 stars on 40 reviews.