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FRONTLINE: Doing Good

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Healing Devotion

Some people talk of a “mission” in life. But when the mission is completed, is it time to go? Perhaps that’s how it was for Hans Herlinger, who died in August after 91 years that revolved almost entirely around medicine and the business of saving lives.

Beginning in the late 1930s, when Nazis were rounding up many members of his family, Herlinger’s dream of becoming a physician seemed to lift him out of harm’s way. Later, his career focus narrowed to the medical specialty, radiology, in which he did his greatest work. Then, in 1978, dreading imminent (and mandatory) retirement from England’s national healthcare system at age 65, Herlinger moved to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

Over his 25 years at Penn, Herlinger developed a technique called enteroclysis, a method of collecting radiological details of the small bowel to detect abnormalities. In 1989, he published Clinical Radiology of the Small Intestine, now considered the classic text on the subject, and lectured in several languages around the world. In 1996, he won the Cannon Medal, the “Oscar” of gastrointestinal radiology.

“His work was so good that he brought a definite notoriety to Penn because of it,” wrote Igor Laufer, professor of radiology at HUP. “Radiologists from other academic medical centers around the country came to HUP in order to learn enterocylsis by watching him at work.”

And he just couldn’t turn it off. In 1998, the 83-year-old Herlinger made what he considered a “marvelous discovery”: a faster route to work after downsizing to a cottage at Haverford’s Quadrangle. “If I left for work early enough,” he wrote in A Dream: Surpassing Every Impasse, his memoir published earlier this year, “I could drive to the hospital without stopping for a single traffic light, as they were still switched off in the early hours.”

Eventually, though, even the Penn years ended. In 2003, on the morning after his retirement, Herlinger woke up to “a large emptiness.”

European Son
Born in Graz, Austria, in 1915, Herlinger was the son of a prosperous Jewish family, who enrolled him in Zionist youth organizations. His father, Ernst, was an intellectual grain importer who loved classical music. His mother, Else, wrapped her life around Hans and his younger brother, Pauli. The two boys played “bicycle polo” with broomsticks and skied the Alps. Hans took seven years of piano lessons.

Ernst Herlinger wanted his oldest son to become a lawyer in the family business, so Hans enrolled in introductory law classes at the University of Graz. On the side, however, he attended medical lectures. Eventually, his father relented.

In 1938, about a month before the Anschluss that annexed Austria to the Third Reich, two Austrian policemen arrived to announce that Hans was under arrest. His membership in Jewish groups had been noticed. For several months, he was held with about 30 men, including Otto Loewi, a Nobel Prize-winning physician whose medical lectures he’d attended.

Allowed his books, Hans spent time studying and talking with Loewi about a medical career outside of an increasingly unfriendly Austria. Then, “quite abruptly,” Herlinger later wrote, “our captors [said] that if we signed papers agreeing to go into voluntary exile from Austria, we might regain our freedom.”

Disgusted by Austrian cooperation with the Nazis, Herlinger was eager to leave. He signed the papers, said goodbye to his parents and flew to Italy, finishing his medical education in British-controlled Malta. But when Germany (the country he was now a citizen of) and Britain went to war the following year, he was arrested and interned along with other foreign nationals at camps in Palestine and Uganda. He hadn’t completed his medical studies, so he spent his time assisting the camp doctors and working in welfare clinics serving the local populations.

When Herlinger left Graz, he had been engaged to Lizzie Biro, a fellow Jew, childhood playmate and the daughter of family friends. As the war swept Hans away, though, he and Lizzie lost touch. In Uganda, Herlinger met Daniela, a Romanian who had been living in Iraq until she was caught in the British net. When the war ended, Daniela returned to Romania and he returned to Malta, receiving his medical diploma in 1947.

After residency in London, Herlinger joined the British Colonial Service, which sent him to Georgetown, British Guiana, where he worked in its hospital for 12 years. During that time he married an English nurse, Betty, had two sons and eventually grew bored with the repetitiveness of patient care. He wanted to do research, so he jumped at the opportunity do post-graduate work in radiology. That project eventually took the family back to England. where Herlinger joined the faculty at Leeds Medical School and began what even he later called an “obsessive” investigation of diseases of the bowel.

Why the bowel? He had wanted to make his mark, Herlinger confessed earlier this year, and the sexier parts of the body were taken. “The bowel is enormously long and you can’t really touch it, palpate it,” he said. “It was quite a problem to depict it radiologically.” The solution—mixing barium, which X-rays can detect, with a suitable carrier—was much more complicated than it sounds.

Betty died in 1986, and Hans recovered from several strokes. He eventually gave up driving after he was unable to find his way home. His memoir engaged him for a while. In February, he claimed to be working part-time at Penn, but his friend Betty Schmidt says otherwise.

“Just the other day,” recalls Schmidt, “he said to me, ‘I wish I could go back to medicine.’”

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