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Saturday, December 15, 2007

Dotage and Fame: the Case of Ferdinand Sauerbruch


Here is a story of a German physician's occupational prestige, with its concurrent power over the lives of others, and how it was able to sweep aside, at least for a time, all evidence of incapacity and senility.

At the top of this posting we see a picture of Ferdinand Sauerbruch, the most famous of German surgeons of the twentieth century. The picture is the 1932 work of the Jewish artist Max Liebermann. Sauerbruch and Liebermann were neighbors and friends, apparently even after the Nazis took power. But Sauerbruch was, at the same time, a supporter of the Nazis. As with so many other German in public life at the time, the best that can be said on this topic is that his relationship to the regime was one of ambiguity.

Sauerbruch was recognized as one of the very top scientists of his generation. He was nominated for the Nobel prize no fewer than 54 times over a period of 14 years. But then a well-known German opponent of the Nazis, Carl von Ossietzky, received the Nobel Peace prize for 1935. Hitler was furious and forbade German citizens to accept further Nobel prizes. In their stead, the Nazis created a special German prize, apparently in compensation, and Sauerbruch accepted this all-German, Nazi-sponsored prize at the annual Nazi rally of 1937.

After the war, Sauerbruch made a similar peace with the Soviet occupation of East Germany, with whose help he continued his world-famous work in the world-famous hospital in East Berlin, the Charité (it was here, by the way, if childhood memory of what I was told can be trusted, that my own father worked with Sauerbruch as a young assistant after the first world war).

But now, soon after the end of WWII, comes the sad decline of Sauerbruch's mental powers, which he steadfastly denied to himself and to others. And here is the shocker: he continued to operate on patients without realizing what he was doing, causing untold calamities, unrestrained for some years by the authorities. After the Charité finally dismissed him, he continued to see private patients, gratis, from both parts of Berlin, causing more harm. The most fascinating part of the story is the fumbling, hesitant reaction of the German medical profession. Sauerbruch's prestige had been so high that the medical authorities, for a very long time, refused to stop his mayhem. The whole story, well told by the physician-journalist Jürgen Thorwald ("The Dismissal," 1960), is now well known to German physicians. But the German general public seems to know little. The German Wikipedia article on Sauerbruch, though it dutifully lists Thornwald's book, mentions nothing of his late-life dementia, and my attempt to insert some words to this effect was immediately edited out. (There is a mention of the problem, however, in the American Wikipedia).

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