Master Surgeon (a.k.a. A Surgeon’s Life) [Das War Mein Leben.]

Here is the story of Gerson’s cure for skin tuberculosis, also known as lupus vulgaris.

This book is the autobiography of Ferdinand Sauerbruch (1875 – 1951), who pioneered thoracic surgery and was the first to operate successfully on the human heart. Hear him speak here.

The following excerpt of Dr. Sauerbruch’s autobiography is quoted in chapter 4 of Censured for curing cancer: the American experience of Dr. Max Gerson. 2nd edition. by S.J. Haught. The incident recounted must have happened between 1920 and 1925.

Master Surgeon

I was sitting in a train traveling from Munich to Davos, where I had once again been invited. It had been an exhausting day and I tried to sleep, but in vain. I had probably drunk too much coffee. Grimly I leaned back and tried to read the medical journals I had with me. After we had crossed into Switzerland, another traveler got into my compartment. The man seemed bored, and it was plain that he was looking for a chance to open conversation. He irritated me by shuffling his feet, twitching his legs, fidgeting with his clothes, and by his general restlessness. Before long, he made his opening move.

“Are you going to Davos, too?”

“Yes,” I growled.

After a very short silence, he tried again. “Are you a patient?”


He peered across to try and read the titles of the periodicals which I had thrown down beside me on the seat.

“So you are a doctor going to Davos?”

“No, I am not.”

“Thank God for that. Doctors are fools. All but one.”

We rattled on through the night. I was desperately tired. I could not read, my eyes were aching, yet in spite of myself I was curious concerning this exception. It was not difficult to set him off again. As I stared at him, he asked, “What can you see on my face?”

“Burns,” I suggested.

“Burns!” he cried. “These aren’t burns. They are the scars of skin tuberculosis, and I was cured of it by this doctor.”

“What!” I exclaimed, though with some restraint. Skin tuberculosis, lupus, an unsightly disease for which there was no known cure. I decided that my fellow traveler was just bragging. “There’s no cure for lupus.”

“There used to be no cure,” he replied. “But one has been found. I have been cured.”

Before he realized what was happening, I was unfastening his jacket and shirt, for we were alone in the compartment and some distance from the next station. And on his chest I saw large areas of perfectly healed lupus. I asked him to tell me his story. From his accent, I judged him to be Russian.

The disease, he said, had developed in his home country; he had gone from doctor to doctor. Being well-to-do, he had been able to afford treatment abroad and had visited various German hospitals in vain. Feeling more and more like a medieval leper, he had been on the brink of suicide, when he was told that there was a doctor named Gerson in Bielefeld who claimed to be able to cure lupus. He decided to go to him. Why not? The effects of the disease on his face were such that he would soon be forced to retire from the world. People shrank from him, and few hotels would admit him.

As soon as Dr. Gerson saw him, he exclaimed, “Ha! Lupus, lupus vulgaris.

“Can you help me?”

“Of course I can help you.” And he did. I asked him how he had done so.

“By diet.”

In the whole range of medical literature, there was no reference to the treatment of lupus by diet.

“When I was cured,” he continued, “I went to all the famous doctors who had told me there was no cure, and they all laughed at me. Doctors!”

“Did you ever go to Sauerbruch?” I asked.

“It wouldn’t have been any use. He’s in Munich, and anyway, he always quarrels with everybody, shouts and bellows at them. He wouldn’t listen.”

I told him that I knew Sauerbruch and that I could guarantee that Sauerbruch would see him. And then he told me why he was going to Switzerland. He was hoping to acquire a building for the treatment of lupus patients free of charge. It was to be a gesture of gratitude for his release from this dreaded scourge. But he knew that he would need the support of some prominent man, for Dr. Gerson’s name was practically unknown.

“Do not forget to call on Sauerbruch,” were my parting words to him. “I shall see that you are received by him.”

About a fortnight later, the Russian was shown into my office, accompanied by a modest man with a highly intelligent face. Dr. Gerson himself, I guessed.

“So you were Sauerbruch yourself!”

Gerson declared that he had cured a number of patients by excluding salt from their diet entirely. My Russian visitor was one of them. And of his cure there could be no doubt, however amazing his claim might seem. I could see no apparent connection between treatment and cure, but that did not prevent me from beginning a series of experiments immediately.

I put my assistant, Dr. Herrmannsdorfer, in charge of a wing of the clinic which was fitted up as a lupus station. The patients were to be fed in accordance with Dr. Gerson’s diet.

Lupus patients were found. We securely barred doors and windows to prevent escape. A person who, over a long period, is given food with no salt at all suffers from his situation.

Dr. Gerson returned to his practice and I promised to keep him informed of our progress. Results were catastrophic. We kept the patients locked up for weeks. Not a grain of salt went into their food, but there was no trace of improvement. On the contrary, in each case the disease advanced according to rule. Dr. Herrmannsdorfer and I were at a loss, thinking of the Russian who had been cured and of humble Dr. Gerson in whom we had put complete faith.

We felt we must drop the experiment. Sadly I wrote to Dr. Gerson, telling him of the failure of the experiment and our decision to close the lupus ward. I dictated that letter in the morning. That afternoon, a sister called me to an emergency case: a patient had a severe postoperative hemorrhage. I hastened along corridors and downstairs and did what was necessary. Pensively I was strolling back along the corridor near the lupus ward, when I saw a nurse, the fattest nurse in the building, carrying an enormous tray loaded with sausages, bowls of cream, and jugs of beer. It was four o’clock in the afternoon, hardly the time for such a feast in a hospital. In amazement, I stopped and asked her where on earth she was going with all that food. And then the whole story came out.

“I couldn’t bear it any longer, Herr Geheimrat,” she explained. “Those poor patients with skin T.B. The stuff they are given –– no one could eat it.”

She was astonished when I dashed her tray to the ground. It was one of the occasions when I completely lost my temper. Every day, at four o’clock when no one was around, she had been taking the patients a nice, appetizing, well-seasoned meal.

I sent off a telegram to Dr. Gerson, asking him not to open the letter I had written him. We were back at the beginning again, and from that moment we took extra precautions in guarding the lupus wing. In comparison, a prison would have been a holiday camp. Soon, Dr. Gerson was proved right. Nearly all our patients recovered; their sores almost disappeared under our very eyes. In this experiment involving 450 patients, only four could not be cured by Dr. Gerson’s saltless diet.

Translated by Frernand G. Renier and Anne Cliff
“Autobiography of the greatest of all continental surgeons”. 297 pp illustrated. English translation also published by Thomas Y. Crowell Co.

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