Polio, Politicians, Pianists Galore: Doctors Who Did More Than Medicine
small, Polio, Politicians, Pianists Galore: Doctors Who Did More Than Medicine, Collegium Medicum Uniwersytet Jagiellonski, Krakow, exercises of the first-year medical students in the Department of Histology, photo: Tomasz Żurek /, full__krakow._collegium_medicum_uj_east_news_770.jpg
Some of the contemporary achievements in the Polish medical field today can be traced back to a historical list of Nobel Prize-winning researchers who also achieved careers as ministers or practiced as authors, pianists, art collectors or therapists. We have selected five stories which illustrate the enormous Polish contribution to the world of medicine.
Recently, figures of medical genius have regained public exposure with Łukasz Palkowski’s internationally praised film, Gods / Bogowie (2014) -- a biopic about Polish cardiologist Zbigniew Religa, who led the team of surgeons that performed the first successful heart transplant in the Polish People’s Republic. Bogowie has had over a million viewers worldwide. As the fundamental professional duty of saving lives touches upon the limits of morality in light of constant scientific advancement, the Polish medical field has produced figures with wide-ranging interests, not only in medicine, but also in politics, the humanities and the arts.
Koprowski: The Case of Polio
The first effective vaccine against the post-war epidemic of polio was invented by the Warsaw-born virologist and immunologist Dr. Hilary Koprowski. Recognized for his curiously distinct personality throughout his career in the U.S., Koprowski was a graduate of Warsaw University’s medical department as well as the Warsaw Conservatory and the Santa Cecilia Conservatory in Rome. Throughout his medical career Koprowski remained an avid pianist, a collector of paintings of the old masters, and a polyglot who spoke seven languages. After his recent death in 2013, Koprowski’s name was remembered as one of the world’s foremost biomedical researchers, however, his groundbreaking discovery did not always receive the recognition it deserved.
Dr. Koprowski developed an effective polio vaccine and registered it under his name in 1948, before doctors Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin (who, as luck would have it, was also of Polish origin) received accreditation for their concurrent research. Nevertheless, Koprowski remained a forgotten figure of the trilogy of great virologists of the 50s. Koprowski’s vaccine was used with good results at research sites in various countries; excluding the United States, as Americans feared the potential side-effects of a vaccine based on a live virus - instead of a “killed” version - which was later developed by Salk and released in 1955 in injection form, while an “attenuated” version (reduced in virulence) was developed in oral form by Sabin around the same year. While Salk is regarded as the world's deliverer from polio in the American popular consciousness, thanks to its cheaper production and distribution, Sabin’s oral vaccine allowed for the hope that the epidemic may one day be eradicated worldwide. Among the three of them, Koprowski’s name remained forgotten for a long while, but it also illuminated the delicate balance between risk and recognition, as well as the convergence of medicine and politics in the development of a drug that can save thousands of children from infection.
Numerous other politically-involved cases in the history of Polish vaccine research are worth recognition: Polish biologist Dr. Rudolf Stefan Weigl is regarded as the inventor of the first effective vaccine against typhus. Weigl, who is known to have employed and protected Polish intellectuals during WWII, made his vaccines available inside ghettos in Lviv and Warsaw, saving countless lives. On a similar venture, Dr. Eugeniusz Lazowski along with Dr. Stanisław Matulewicz caused a “fake” epidemic by injecting a typhus vaccine into the non-Jewish population in neighborhoods surrounding the Jewish ghettos, causing Germans to abandon the area, thus sparing thousands of local Jews’ lives. Today, human testing of a prostate cancer vaccine is being carried out in eight different European countries by a German-Polish medical team under Dr. Mariola Fotin-Mleczek’s supervision.
Szczeklik and The Kraków-effect
As the historical city of master painter Jan Matejko, Kraków’s artistic and architectural flavours seem to have inspired those from the medical field and turned them into novelists and theatre actors. To name it the “Kraków-effect” wouldn’t be an overstatement, especially in the case of two figures. Polish immunologist Prof. Andrzej Szczeklik was not only involved in the discovery of prostacyclin (a hormone produced in the lining of the arteries, and helped understand the uses of aspirin) alongside another Kraków-based pharmacologist Ryszard Jerzy Gryglewski at John Vane’s London laboratory in 1976, but he was also praised as a novelist. Szczeklik’s recent book, Kore: On Sickness and the Sick and the Search for the Soul of Medicine (Znak, 2007), was published a little before his death in 2012. A previous work, Catharsis: On the Art of Medicine (2005), translated into several languages from the Polish original with a foreword by prominent Polish poet Czesław Miłosz, reflects Prof. Sczczeklik’s main source of inspiration after the Greek term, catharsis; cleansing of the body by medicine and the soul by art.
...Science is just one way of learning about reality... Plato knew this, and as he came near the limits of scientific learning, he turned to poetry... Through poetic metaphors, through art, he captured truths that were inaccessible to science. But what, we might ask, is the “truth”? “Truth is a mobile army of metaphors,” replies Nietzsche. If this truth about the truth is true, then the circle closes, art meets up with science, and the doctor finds his place at the point where they connect (Catharsis, 53-54)
Another associate of the internationally renowned School of Medicine at the Jagiellonian University, Julian Aleksandrowicz, also known as the father of Polish psychosomatics, has focused on developing ecological methods of preventing leukaemia and most importantly, psychotherapeutic and theatrically engaging methods of healing somatic diseases - in which mental factors play a significant role in the development or resolution of a physical illness. Serving as a physician of the Polish resistance during the war under the pseudonym “Doktor Twardy”, Aleksandrowicz focused on practicing theatrical therapy with his patients. His numerous publications cover topics ranging from ecological consciousness to the experimental convergence of the kitchen and medicine.
Funk: Essentials for Life
Polish biochemist Dr. Kazimierz Funk is known for his discovery of the concept of vitamins in 1912. While working with fellow Charles Martin at London’s Linster Institute on beri-beri disease, Funk discovered that the use of an essential element - which he later came to realize was vitamin B1, also known as thiamine - helped cure beri-beri patients. He named this trace element a vitamin: “vita” meaning life and “amine” meaning a nitrogen-containing compound. The "e" at the end of "vitamine" was later removed, when it was realized that vitamins need not be nitrogen-containing amines.
It is worth noting that Kazimierz Funk was recently portrayed in a highly colourful, if not historically accurate, manner in the film Hiszpanka/ Influence, which is worth watching for its breathtaking visual reconstructions of the interwar period alone.
Later, in 1933, Polish chemist Prof. Tadeusz Reichstein succeeded Dr. Funk with his discovery of the principal industrial chemical process in synthesizing vitamin C for market use. This process has been known ever since as the “Reichstein process,” and is used by major pharmaceutical companies such as Roche of Switzerland, where Reichstein also lived and worked. Together with American chemists Edward Kendall and Phillip Hench, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1950 for their work on the cortisone hormone.
Religa: Polish God and Chairman
Transplant surgery is among the hardest medical challenges. It not only deals with the meticulous replacing of organs from one body into another, but also incorporates a most powerful sense of delivering new life to a person. The latter seems to be the reason why Łukasz Palkowski’s internationally praised biopic on the Polish cardiac surgeon Prof. Zbigniew Religa was titled Gods / Bogowie (2014). Prof. Religa gained international fame when in 1987, the National Geographic featured James Stanfield’s picture of Religa sitting by his patient on the operating table after a successful heart transplant at the Silesian Centre for Heart Diseases in Zabrze near Katowice. As the image was ranked among the 100 most important photos in history, on the table lay the 19th patient whom Religa successfully saved since his first failed attempt in 1985, which was also the first of its kind in Communist Poland.
Parallel to his work as a physician, Prof. Religa was closely engaged in politics, serving as the Minister of Health between 2005-2007, and as a member of the Polish Sejm for the following two years. Spanning the centre and centre-right of Polish politics, Religa was the founding member and chairman of various parties between 1993-2004, and a member of the Polish Senate for two terms (in 1993–1997 and 2001–2005). Religa’s position as Minister of Health was succeeded between the years 2007-2011 by Ewa Kopacz, who is now also the current Polish Prime Minister. A graduate of the Medical University of Lublin, a paediatrician and specialist in family medicine, Kopacz gained international recognition in 2009 for her decline of pharmaceutical companies’ attempts to sell the Polish government the controversial swine flu vaccine.
Among surgeries, the most controversial to date remains face transplants. M.D. Ph.D. Maria Siemionow is the key figure in American face transplant surgery. A graduate of the Poznan Medical Academy, Siemionow led the medical team at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio in 2008 to perform the first face transplant in American medical history. Poland is listed among France, Spain, Turkey and U.S as the top countries that allow and carry out face transplants. The Maria Skłodowska-Curie Institute of Oncology branch in the southern city of Gliwice remains Poland’s major face transplant hub, as recently in 2013 it hosted Poland’s first emergency-case full face transplant, followed by another full face operation that same year. Unlike in America, the surgical costs in Poland are covered by the national health service.
Rajchman: The Father of UNICEF’s Children
Polish physicians and researchers who also became art collectors or Nobel laureates and who were active politicians remain prominent figures in medicine on a global scale. Our last story involves Polish bacteriologist Dr. Ludwik J. Rajchman, the founding director of UNICEF. The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) established in 1943 by the allies of World War II did not yet include a particular agenda for children. At a UNRRA meeting in Geneva, Polish delegate Dr. Ludwik Rajchman was noticeably vocal in protesting on behalf of Europe's children. Once the proposal for the UN International Children's Emergency Fund was accepted in 1946, Rajchman was regarded its founder, and served as its first chairman from 1946 to 1950.
Polish medical doctors and researchers feature names with wide-ranging interest not only in medicine, but also in politics, the humanities and arts. They have done much for culture, as they have for medicine worldwide. Most recently, this January, UNICEF launched its biggest ever appeal - the $3.1 billion Humanitarian Action for Children in 2015 - aiming to reach 62 million children at risk in 71 countries around the world from increasingly complex and destructive conflicts such as natural disasters, wars and other threats, including the recent Ebola epidemic. Meanwhile, back in October 2014, a team of Polish surgeons led by Dr. Pawel Tabakow of the Department of Neurosurgery at the Wroclaw Medical University, in collaboration with the UK-based research team led by Prof. Geoff Raisman at the University College London's Institute of Neurology, announced the first ever recovery of a paralyzed man via stem-cell research.
At each step, cleansing the body by medicine and the soul by art remains a most delicate human endeavour, while comprising recognition for the sake of saving thousands of lives illuminates how politics, culture and science always go hand in hand.
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