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The Physician From Vienna

Dr Ismar Boas (1858-1938)

Dr Ismar Boas (1858-1938)

On March 12, 1938, Nazi troops invaded Austria. Three days later, in Vienna, a nearly 80-year-old physician named Ismar Boas (1858-1938) (Figure) committed suicide. Thus ended the life of a pioneering founder of gastroenterology.1

In 1886, Boas opened the first specialty clinic for digestive diseases in Berlin. In 1895, he founded the first gastroenterology journal, presently entitled Digestion. Boas was also Jewish, and his story reflected the fate of all Jewish physicians within the Third Reich: their careers were destroyed as they endured Nazi intimidation and terror. Many Jewish physicians would perish during the Holocaust.

In 1936, Boas fled to Vienna after he was forced to close his Berlin practice. In 1938, following the Anschluss, Boas refused to fall again under Nazi rule. He preferred to end his life with a drug overdose.

In November 1938, Boas’ death became the theme of a short drama (Appendix, available online) written in German by the Jewish Austrian-Bohemian novelist Franz Werfel (1890-1945). It is called “The Physician From Vienna” (Der Arzt Von Wien), and it is a fictional account of Ismar Boas’ final hours. It was published in Pariser Tageszeitung (Parisian Daily Newspaper).

The work is a monodrama, featuring one character: the Physician. The action occurs from dusk to nightfall, with darkness symbolizing death. The scene is an old-fashioned doctor’s office, where the Physician has practiced for 40 years. In a corner rests a bust of Professor Hermann Nothnagel (1841-1905), the Physician’s deceased mentor. Nothnagel was a German internist who in 1882 became a Professor of Medicine in Vienna. He was famous for his stirring words: “Only a good man can be a good physician.”

The Physician has seen his last patient when the phone rings. A voice warns him that he was denounced as a Jew and will be arrested soon. The Physician, stunned, is urged to pack up quickly so that he can escape across the border. He will be contacted again at 6 pm.

The Physician gathers his clothes and books. Suddenly, the bust of Dr Nothnagel is illuminated by the street lights. The statue is imagined to be saying “Only a good person can be a good physician.” The Physician tells the bust that going into exile means “I’ll be waking up someplace, without a name, without any means, without people, without possibility…in my seventies, when other professors are celebrating their honorable retirement…”.

The Physician decides not to run. He will die on his own terms. The noise on the street has grown louder with shouts of Sieg-Heil. The Physician looks out the window, wondering “The hate! Why this hate??? What did we do to you?” The Physician injects himself with strophanthus, as the clock tolls 6 pm. He slumps into his chair, immobile.

The Physician From Vienna is an anti-Nazi drama written to protest Hitler’s brutal oppression of European Jewry, one of several authored by Werfel on anti-Semitism and genocide. Following the Anchluss, Werfel settled in France. When France fell to the Nazis in June 1940, Werfel and his wife Alma were in danger of being sent to a concentration camp.

They were rescued by an American journalist, Varian Fry (1907-1967), who had volunteered to go to Marseilles, France, to save endangered persons. On September 13, 1940, Fry arranged a secret crossing that took the Werfels over the Pyrenees mountains into Spain, then to Lisbon, Portugal, where they boarded a ship bound to New York. In September of 1941, the Vichy government forced Fry out of France after he had saved 4000 Jews.

The Physician From Vienna is a remembrance of Ismar Boas, a great physician who tragically committed suicide 80 years ago, amidst the Holocaust. It is a reminder that it is important to stand up to hatred and inhumanity, so that no one will ever again experience the horrors of genocide.

It is noteworthy that looming over this drama is the image of Hermann Nothnagel with his inspiring words “Only a good man can be a good physician.” This maxim, timeless in its wisdom, can serve all physicians as a moral guide to help overcome any obstacle, whether economic, regulatory, or bureaucratic, that challenges our ability to give patients our finest medical care.

To read this article in its entirety please visit our website.

- Leonard J. Hoenig, MD, Beatrix I. Thom, BA, MSN, RN

This article originally appeared in the April issue of The American Journal of Medicine.

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