access_time published 17.10.2017
Dr. Hans Salvisberg, physician and philanthropist (1929–2015)
Dr. Hans Salvisberg, physician and philanthropist (1929–2015)
In this Op-Ed, Hans Salvisberg’s nephew recounts and celebrates the life and accomplishments of a major Swiss philanthropist.
After a fulfilled life as an internal medicine specialist, Hans Salvisberg, M.D. passed away in the year 2015. He bequeathed his considerable estate of more than seven million Swiss francs to the Neuropath Foundation, with the intent to advance research in the field of Alzheimer’s and related neurodegenerative diseases. This large and unexpected donation is now enabling cutting-edge research at the Institute of Neuropathology at the University of Zurich.
This text reflects a speech at the first “Salvisberg Symposium on Advances in Neuropathology”, which took place in Bludenz in September 2017.
With his donation to the Neuropath Foundation at the University Hospital of Zurich, my uncle wanted to open new perspectives in research into Alzheimer’s disease. He would have been glad to see the world’s top scientists congregating in Bludenz for the “Salvisberg Symposium on Advances in Neuropathology”, but he would have been too modest to call or denominate a symposium with his own name. I don’t know whether he gave much thought to the direct consequences of his legacy, but he would have been impressed with the impactful consequences of his act of philanthropy.
Hans Salvisberg was born on the 26th of September 1929 into a family with many teachers in it. His father Arnold was a primary school teacher, his brother Paul (my father) became a secondary school teacher, his sister-in-law Annemarie (my mother) worked in a primary school, his nephew also nowadays mainly works in a secondary school and writes as a journalist, and his niece Brigitte (my sister) works in a music school. With his choice to study medicine and make a career as a doctor, he stood quite alone. He couldn’t find many professional partners for a medical conversation in our family or among our relatives. So we can imagine all the more his strong vocation to earn a medical degree and to work as a doctor.
Hans Salvisberg grew up in Olten, a small town in Switzerland halfway between Berne and Zurich, and also halfway between Basel and Lucerne. The advantage of growing up and living in a town with (nowadays) 19 000 inhabitants was, and continues to be, the fact that you can get very quickly to one of the more populous cities of Switzerland, or into the neighbouring countries, because Olten is one of the most important railway junctions of Switzerland. With his brother Paul, who was four years younger, he spent a harmonious boyhood in and around a house in Olten where I also grew up.
The wonderful time of childhood games ended when Hans Salvisberg attended the grammar school (the “Gymnasium”) in Solothurn. There, during his studies, my uncle met his life-long best friends. He earned with them his medical licensure (eidgenössisches Staatsexamen) in Basel in October 1955. Then began his years of travel, which I can hardly reconstruct. We know that he went to the USA, but he never talked to us about these years, which must have been the best of his life. When my wife Emiliana asked him some years before his death to write his memories down, he refused, because he thought that they wouldn’t interest anyone. As we now know, his prediction was utterly incorrect – the young scientists whose dreams can now be made true by his donation would love to learn more about his life.
It seems to be a fact that if his mother Hedwig hadn’t fallen seriously ill during the 1960s, Hans Salvisberg possibly wouldn’t have returned to Switzerland and the meeting in Bludenz wouldn’t be taking place. Let me tell you some details of the late 1950s and the early 1960s, which I could find out thanks to his diploma and my interest as a historian. My uncle went to the USA to continue his medical education. In 1957 he first worked as an intern at the Lutheran Medical Center of Brooklyn, New York. Thanks to the immigrant papers of the US department of Justice, I could find out that he left Rotterdam on the ship “Noordam” on the 15th of December 1956. He arrived in New York on the 24th of December 1956. After one year of medical work in Brooklyn, in 1958 he spent a second period of twelve months at the Millard Fillmore Hospital in Buffalo, New York, as a resident in internal medicine. After his return to Europe, my uncle earned a doctor’s degree at the university of Basel in March 1959 with a dissertation related to neonatology entitled “Über die Credé’sche Prophylaxe der Neugeborenenblennorrhoe”.
Maybe afterwards my uncle spent some more months in the USA (possibly in Chicago or in Boston), but he also began to be more and more in touch with the hospitals in Zurich. Displaying an obvious peripatetic streak, he went on to perfect his medical skills at the Hôpital Boucicaut in Paris. In 1962, he wrote a letter from Paris to girlfriend Laura Gehring, who was seven years older than he was and worked as a secretary at the Waid Hospital in Zurich. The family and his friends got to know Laura, who became his professional and private partner for his entire lifetime, only many years later. Paris was not only a professional destination for my uncle. He also went there to learn more of the French language at the Alliance Française, and he spent many holidays in France because he loved French culture and savoir vivre.
In the decade of the 1960s, he worked in the University Hospital in Zurich (USZ). In January 1963 he was recognised as a specialist in internal medicine by the Federation of Swiss Doctors (FMH). In these years he built up a strong relationship with the now-defunct airline Swissair and to the Fliegerärztliche Institut (the Swiss aeromedical centre), for which he assessed the medical state of the pilots. He also performed a similar activity for the US and Canadian Aviation Authorities.
The famous calendar of Swissair that he normally gave me as a Christmas gift, was for me, as his nephew, proof that Hans belonged to the “masters of the sky”. Yet the relationship to Swissair and many pilots inspired my uncle also to become master of his own medical practice in Zurich. He wanted to get out of the hierarchical structure of the hospitals, but he gave great consideration to the financial risks and the potential of his professional independence. In those times he probably didn’t think of donating money to an institution.
Despite his initial worries, his outpatient practice in internal medicine, which he opened in 1969 at a prime location in the center of Zurich (the Limmatquai), became a success. Very soon he was able to engage Laura Gehring who, as noted above, was his professional and private partner until her death in 2012. In 1973 he choose Zollikon near Zurich as his place of residence. Two years later he decided to buy an appartment on the Rigi Mountain in Central Switzerland. The so-called Queen of the mountains allowed him, especially in winter above the fog of the Swiss plains, to recover from the stress of downtown Zurich.
The bond with his patients was so close that Hans Salvisberg maintained his practice until the year of his 70th birthday. Many patients described him as a fair and helpful person. He was for many people a sensitive and valuable conversation partner. He was definitely not only a doctor, but also a psychologist. Many working days ended, therefore, later than he thought. Hans stayed in touch with many patients who became his companions on travels and walking-tours. With Laura he often went to classical concerts and art exhibitions. He often supported the careers of young artists by buying their works – a possible prelude to his remarkable act of philanthropy. He was often generous, but his character remained modest.
In 1999, after years of constant skirmishes with the computerisation of his profession, Hans Salvisberg decided to give up his practice. The physician who was his successor at the Limmatquai practice was a former patient, and he too became Aeromedical Examiner for the Federal Aviation Authority. Retirement from his practice became urgent because of Hans Salvisberg’s own state of health. A coronary bypass operation in 1995 marked the beginning of increasing health problems. He fought against them with disciplined fitness training, including regular walks.
The death of both Laura and his brother Paul in 2012 took a major toll on him. In his last years he suffered from dizziness and poor balance. After a collapse in his appartment in July 2015, it was discovered that he suffered from liver cancer, and within three weeks his life came to an end. He liked very much the uplifting sentence: “Ich mag Leute, die lächeln, wenn es regnet (I like people who smile when it rains).” Today this sentence, in the form of a wooden heart, decorates his grave in the cemetery of Zollikerberg near Zurich.
Hans Salvisberg died in 2015 when he was almost 86 years. He left us with some mysteries about his life and his career. But he left a clear and explicit will stating that much of his fortune should be invested in research into neurodegeneration. Only once did he talk to me about this part of his testament. He said that he wanted to support research into Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia because he was convinced that many resources were already devoted to cancer research and heart diseases. He understood that demographic developments make advances in this field of research more necessary than ever before.
Hans Salvisberg had lost a good friend, a doctor in Zurich, to mental disease. And we feel the necessity for progress in this research field in our own family now, and therefore follow discussions in the media. Since the visit of a group of family members and former friends to the Institute of Neuropathology in Zurich in June, we – the Salvisberg family – gained an idea of what it means for scientists to work in the field of experimental medicine. The extended family and the friends of Hans Salvisberg wish the scientists of the Institute of Neuropathology the greatest possible success, and hope that the impressive legacy of Hans Salvisberg will inspire others to support medical research!