Forced "reprogramming" of left-handers abandoned 40 years ago

Around 10 percent of people are left-handed. But it wasn't so long ago that those born left-handed were forced to write with their right hands. Life improved substantially for left-handed Czechs forty years ago, when the authorities abandoned this practice. Lenka Petakova reports - and meets a man who remembers the bad old days when left-handers were made to "overcome" their natural disposition.

In February 1967 the Czechoslovak Education Ministry decided to heed the advice of experts in the field and no longer force left-handed pupils to write with their right hand. The reform has been credited to the enlightened approach of then education minister, Frantisek Kahuda.

But what was life like for those who attended Czechoslovak schools before the old-fashioned approach was abandoned?

Professor Otto Ripka is a former head of the Clinic of Internal Medicine at one of Prague's main hospitals. Now almost 90, he remembers some of the difficulties he experienced as a left-handed junior doctor.

"It was a problem when, as a young graduate, I became an instructor in the department of pathology. I naturally tended to hold the knife in my left hand and dissect the body with this hand. But my professor wanted me to do everything with my right hand when demonstrating how to dissect in front of the students, so that they would learn everything the right way. I learned how to dissect with my right hand, but it really was forced and artificial."

Professor Ripka was a very successful scientist. But his left-handedness did send his career down a different path than it might otherwise have taken.

"Soon after I began to study medicine, I thought I would become an eye specialist. When I later worked in the department of pathology, Associate Professor Benesova warned me that even if I could do everything with my left hand, that hand would never be as sensible and as fast as my right. At the same time, she said that I could not use my left hand because everything was designed to be used by the right hand, and also the cooperation between doctors during an operation was such that it didn't take left-handers into account."

His pre-war teachers didn't completely succeed in changing Professor Ripka's natural disposition. He told me he still holds a fork or spoon with his left hand when he is tired and on his own. What's more, whenever he needs to do something which requires real precision and feeling, like sounding a patient's lungs or abdomen, he uses exclusively his left hand.

By the way, life still isn't too easy for left-handed people in the Czech Republic. They complain instruments adjusted for left-handers are hard to come by.