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History of German Language Dermatology (Geschichte der deutschschprachigen Dermatologie)

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Book Review: History of German Language Dermatology (Geschichte der deutschschprachigen Dermatologie)
Mauricio Goihman-Yahr MD, PhD
Dermatology Online Journal 16 (5): 17

Professor (E) of Dermatology and Immunology, Vargas School of Medicine, Central University of Venezuela, Caracas, Venezuela

History of German Language Dermatology
(Geschichte der deutschschprachigen Dermatologie)
Scholtz, A., Holubar, K and Burg, G (Editors)
Wiley-Blackwell (Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA
Deustche Dermatologische Gesellschaft (Germany) 2009
Order through DDG, Robert Koch Platz 7 10115 Berlin

This robust 746-page tome is printed side by side in German and English. All illustrations and tables are similarly bilingual. The paper used is acid free and opaque so that it does not cause bothersome reflections.

As its title indicates, the integrating concept is that of language, not geography, religion, or even prevailing culture. However, because language is a function of political dominion, the results of historical events have an overwhelming effect on the recorded documents. There probably would not have been a history of German language dermatology if Vienna had fallen to the Ottomans in 1683. The book commemorates the first meeting of the Association of German Speaking dermatologists; this was, significantly, held in Prague in 1899.

The book covers Dermatology in Austria, Hungary, Germany, Switzerland, Poland, Slovakia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Lithuania. It also stresses very important relationships with the US and Japan. The English version is eminently readable; some details in syntax or choice of words do not affect this. They just add some flavor as is experienced when tasting an excellent Riesling versus an outstanding Chablis; it is still delightful.

There is an abundance of objective data. Details are presented concerning advances in therapy, pathology, allergy and contact dermatitis, occupational dermatoses, phototherapy, and venereal diseases. The latter were vitally important in the dermatology of a few decades ago. Names, biographies, gossip, and an abundance of photographs (with enlightening legends with arrows and circles to clarify and expand) garnish the book. It should be said that the production is austere. There are no color photographs or special paper for illustrations. The latter are not always pristine, but this does add something of an aura of history and perhaps even of some noble decay.

When covering Germany and Austria (the major players) the authors use an evolutionary approach. This includes initial organization or “institutionalization,” expansion, consolidation, decline (with Nazism), and rebirth. After this section come others in which scientific and organizational advances are described with detail. In my view, however, the first part is the most important and interesting.

The authors do not write dryly and objectively; they express their points of view. It is not an “evidence based book” even if a lot of evidence is presented; but it is rather a narrative written by experts who have distilled the facts in the light of their knowledge and insights. The book is instilled with love, pride, shame (as will be shown later), despair, and hope.

An overriding presence is that of the Jewish frage. Jewish integration into the modern gentile world was the result of two related processes. Emancipation as the result of application to Israelites of the rights of men (proposed by the French philosophes) and Jewish enlightenment (Haskalah) that allowed the former. Jews went into the armies, the industries, and the learned professions; medicine and dermatology were among the favorites, but it was not unimpeded and not painless. The book points out that leaders such as Kaposi and Auspitz had to convert to Christianity to further their careers. Yet, things seemed to be developing in a peaceful, progressive manner until the First World War deeply wounded Western Civilization and eventually gave birth to totalitarianism and its epitome, Nazism. The book stresses the decline of Dermatology during the Nazi era both in Austria and Germany. Jews and political opponents were evicted from posts of academic influence and sent to the darkest depths of the endlösung. The book also offers the teaching that knowledge and science grow best in an atmosphere of progress and freedom. A fitting quote is highlighted on page 255, “Engendered by hate, born of stupidity, brought up by badness - antisemitism is a monster of the human spirit” (Hans von Hebra, the great Hebra’s son, wrote this in 1892). A small map on page 133 tells a terrible story; it indicates the countries assimilating Jewish German dermatologists. The United States, Brazil, South Africa, and China are clearly indicated.

In sum, this book can be read with interest and avidity. It is extremely useful, both for detailed precise information and for a panoramic outlook of this great portion of world dermatology. I do thank my old and very good friend Prof. Karl Holubar to have made it possible for me to read this opus optima.

© 2010 Dermatology Online Journal