Professor Jaroslav Blahoš - former president of the World Medical Association

Professor Jaroslav Blahoš, photo: CTK

My guest for One on One this week is Professor Jaroslav Blahoš, one of the world’s leading endocrinologists. Besides publishing over 370 papers on his specialist subject, Professor Blahoš has also won several prestigious awards. Among other things, he was the only the second Czech after Jan Evangelista Purkyně to be made a member of France’s renowned Académie Nationale de Médecine. He has been head of the Czech Medical Association since 1993 and was president of the World Medical Association from 1999-2001.

Professor Jaroslav Blahoš,  photo: CTK
In addition to his medical work, Jaroslav Blahoš has also published papers on various other subjects, including a well-received study of French poet Arthur Rimbaud’s later life in Ethiopia.

Born in 1930 in the west Bohemian town of Horažďovice, Professor Blahoš spent his formative years growing up under the German Protectorate. I started by asking him what he remembered of these turbulent times.

"I cannot say we suffered but we witnessed terrible things. For example, when the Jews were taken out of our town, we knew very well that they were going to be murdered.

"It was a very, very hard time. For instance, we couldn't keep certain things in our home. I remember the German police came and searched our flat once. They found something like one or two kilos of sugar, and we were afraid that our father would go to prison because of this. It was absolute nonsense.

"We were liberated by the American army in 1945. Of course, you can imagine what a fantastic time that was for us.

"From one point of view, it was a terrible, terrible time, but from another point of view we were forced to live under stress, and it perhaps helped us to be able to survive even harder times."

You mentioned the liberation of western Czechoslovakia by the American army. By all accounts you ended up interpreting for Patton's forces at the time. How did that come about?

"My native town was liberated by the 3rd American Army led by General George Patton. When he came to Horažďovice for one day, he wanted to meet to the inhabitants.

"There was nobody else in the town at the time who spoke English – my teacher was sick, and my father, who spoke English quite well, was away. So at 15 years of age they asked me to translate George Patton's greetings.

"A meeting was set up near the town. There were many people there and George Patton came and said 'Hello, we are very happy to be here and we've found many friends here'. I translated these two or three sentences into Czech.

"It was not very difficult, so I cannot say I was an interpreter for General Patton, but anyhow I got a shirt from him with the word 'INTERPRETER' written on the shoulders. Naturally, I was very proud of this.

"I later spoke with him in my primitive English, and he was an extremely nice man."

After the War, you went to medical school in 1949. This was a time when the communists had just come to power and were tightening their grip. What sort of impact did that have on your studies?

"We moved from Horažďovice to Prague in 1946. I had decided to study medicine but unfortunately the communists came to power in 1948. My father was a lawyer and he had an office here in Prague.

"They came to him and they asked him to become a member of the Communist Party. He resolutely refused. Immediately, they stole everything in his office, and my father had to report for work in a factory the very next day, which was something he had never done before in his life.

"It was a terrible time and, of course, all his family suffered. For me, it meant that they decided that I wouldn't study medicine and that I would do military service and be re-educated on how communism was the right ideology.

"I couldn't study medicine in Prague, but fortunately even several months after term had begun, I had an opportunity to study at Charles University's medical faculty in Plzeň. They had just opened and were looking for students. I was happy to go there and I was admitted to the faculty. I ended up studying there for five years and I graduated with distinction."

One thing that has always been crucial for medical research has been the exchange of ideas and information. As a doctor and a scientist, was this aspect of your work difficult during the communist era?

"Yes, it was not very easy to be in contact with Western medicine. First of all, we couldn't go to the West and see how medicine worked in America, Germany and Austria. It was absolutely impossible, because we had to stay here in Prague and Czechoslovakia.

"Fortunately, we had access to the literature so we knew what was going on. But of course we couldn't adopt or practice many of these things even though we knew that they existed.

"Naturally, as a young man I wanted to go somewhere. The first occasion I had to go abroad was to go to Ethiopia. This was because Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia at that time, went to Czechoslovakia and made an agreement with our communist government that there would be an exchange of doctors between the two countries, because they really needed physicians.

"This was the only possible way of getting out of Czechoslovakia for a certain time. Of course, I had to leave my family here in Prague, but I was able to go to Ethiopia for two years."

A few years after that, you spent the years 1968-1969 in Paris. Given that the Russian occupation of the Czechoslovakia happened at that time and many people were leaving the country, did you feel tempted to not come back?

"Yes, I thought about that many times. In August 1968 when the Red Army and its allies came to Czechoslovakia I was in Bulgaria, which was one of the few places beside the sea that we could visit.

"I was there with my family and I heard that the Russians had entered Czechoslovakia. Of course, I immediately thought that I could leave. But I knew that my mother was sick and that she was living alone in Prague.

"When she got slightly better, I just by chance got an invitation to go and study in Paris. I decided with my wife that we would go. It was still possible to leave Prague and Czechoslovakia at that time. There were no objections to it.

"So we went to Paris when it seemed that my mother was relatively alright. When we began to see that the situation was getting very bad in Czechoslovakia and that a really tough style of communism was being re-established, I decided that I was almost certainly going to stay in France. Unfortunately, my mother got sick again so I came back. She was alone in Prague and had nobody here.

"I must say, though, that because of the excellent medical team I was with, there was no real communist ideology in our work.

"There were several doctors that were in the Communist Party, but they were not dangerous at all. They just signed up to the communist party but were not actually communists. That was the same in the entire population.

"The majority of employees were in the Communist Party, but they were not really communists. They were just in the party because it made their life easier and made things easier for their families. But I never joined myself...."

What do you think of Czech medical standards and the Czech medical system today?

Jaroslav Blahoš with Václav Havel,  photo: CTK
"Things have improved a lot. First of all, it has improved because of the approach to Western medical science and Western medical practices and healthcare.

"During the communist era, medical ethics, for example, were not very important, because they were not necessary.

"The ethical rules were laid down by the Communist Party. Nobody could discuss if they were wrong or nonsensical. It was just accepted. When they were formulating medical ethics, it was simply something we couldn't be involved in. Of course, things have now changed completely.

"Secondly, there is a much greater medical exchange with colleagues from abroad. This is a great advantage. We had no idea that this would finally happen.

"When we were under the communist system, we knew that it would last for a short time from a historical point of view. But, of course, we were also aware that this historically short time could last longer than our lifetime.

"I was very sad to have these ideas. So we couldn't believe it when it completely changed from one day to the next. And that suddenly, we would be completely and absolutely free."