Ode to the Odds #5: Medical Vienna

Vienna is the city that the famous and controversial psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud once called home.  One can tour the important sites in his life, from the University of Vienna to his former apartment.  While Freud undoubtedly tops Vienna’s list of famous medical practitioners, there are several other notable contributors to the profession that made their home here over the years.   Here are some physicians that made major contributions to medical science that you might not know about.

Nobel Laureate


Karl Landsteiner.  He discovered one of the absolute basic tenets of modern medicine, blood groups, including the Rhesus Factor.  He is the reason that you can safely get a blood transfusion.  He was also instrumental in the discovery of the polio virus.  Landsteiner was born in Baden bei Wien in 1868.  He worked in hematology and immunology for his entire career.  He died in 1943 in New York City after having contributed so much to our understanding of allergies, blood groups, blood identification, and virology.

Education Advocate

Fotograf Erich Conrad derivative work: Materialscientist (This file was derived from  Theodor-Billroth.jpg:) via Wikimedia Commons

Theodore Billroth was born in 1829 and is the father of modern abdominal surgery.  There are two gastric procedures named after him, Billroth I and II.  Both operations connect the stomach to different parts of the small intestine.  And while this is vitally important, especially for those with some types of abdominal cancer, this is not the only accomplishment in his career.  Billroth performed the first esophagectomy and the first laryngectomy in the early 1870s.  He also published the results of his surgeries publicly, regardless of the outcome.

Billroth was also instrumental in the development of surgical training and the creation of surgical assistantships.  He believed that surgeons should have access to advanced literature, lectures on advanced skills, and time to learn from field experts before practicing themselves.

Hand Washing

By Jenő Doby [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Ignaz Semmelweis is one of the early pioneers of antiseptic techniques.  He discovered that handwashing significantly reduced maternal death rates.   He was born in 1818 and published his results in the late 1840s.  However, he was given no recognition and in fact most physicians held his research in contempt.  Eventually, he was committed to an asylum, where he died in 1865.

Fun Fact

Did you know that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle studied ophthalmology here in the 1890’s?  Nope, while neither did I until I started doing research for this post.

Touring Medical Vienna

There are two museums in the city dedicated to the history of medicine.  The Museum of Anatomy and Pathology is housed in the Narrenturm, a former psychiatric residency hospital, or at least what passed for one in the 1790s.   You can see some wax disease models, an old dentist’s office, and collections of old medical tools.

The Josephinum is a museum displaying the wax surgical models commissioned by Emperor Joseph II.  He also commissioned the medical school in which the 1200 medical models are housed.  The museum is also the showcase for the various historical collections of medical instruments at the University of Vienna.

The University of Vienna main building is an interesting place to acquaint one’s self with the history of science and medicine.  The courtyard of the main building displays busts  of its famous professors, along with their main accomplishment.  Billroth has a bust and so does Freud. So too do Doppler and Schrödinger.

If you prefer art, the painting Theodore Billroth Operating by Adalbert Franz Seligmann hangs in the Belvedere.

We hope that you get out and explore medical Vienna.  And stay tuned for more interestingly odd facts.

header image via wikicommons

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About Jennifer Cornick

Freelance journalist and blogger for various publications in Vienna. When I am not writing, I can generally be found with a book (or anything with words on it - even cereal boxes).

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