Lives of the fellows

Karl Holubar

b.3 June 1936 d.6 January 2013
MD Vienna(1960) FRCP(1997)

Karl Holubar was professor and chairman of the Institute for the History of Medicine at the University (now Medical University) of Vienna, and also professor of dermatology and venereology at the same university. Karl Holubar made exceptional contributions to both disciplines: he was both a historical scholar and, in his early years, a pioneer in immunodermatology.

Karl Holubar was born in Vienna, Austria, the son of Gottlieb Holubar, a mechanic, and Therese Holubar née Kulger, a teacher of music. Holubar studied medicine at the University of Vienna and, immediately after graduation, decided to pursue dermatology. He started his training at the I University Dermatology Clinic in Vienna (in those days there were two independent, competing clinics for each major specialty). He found himself in a clinic full of optimism and energy; he became a member of a successful group of young scientists who soon made Vienna once again a leading centre of dermatology.

In addition to his clinical training, which turned him into a superb dermatologist, he also worked intensively in histopathology and later enzyme histochemistry of the skin. At that time it was becoming clear that immunologic mechanisms played a key role in many skin diseases. Holubar decided to bring the then new technique of immunofluorescence (with which immune reactions in tissue can be demonstrated) to Austria. In 1968 he spent several months studying with Rudi Cormane in Amsterdam. This stay not only laid the groundwork for his area of expertise in dermatology – immunofluorescence – but also exposed him to a free spirit of academic and social interchange. On his return to Austria, he established the first immunofluorescence laboratory in Austria in an old barracks. In 1972 he spent a year with Ernst Beutner, at the time probably the leading exponent of immunofluorescence in the world, at the department of microbiology and immunology of the State University of New York at Buffalo. Holubar went on to firmly established himself as one of the founders of this exciting field.

Holubar wrote extensively on his histochemical and immunofluorescence work, as well as a range of other subjects. He received his habilitation (or qualification to teach at university) in 1970 and was named ‘außerordentlicher professor’ or ‘professor without a chair’ in 1975. He was president of the Austrian Society of Dermatology and Venereology in 1979. From 1980 to 1981 he served as acting chairman of the I University Dermatology Clinic. After a successor was in place, Holubar took a completely unexpected step: he accepted a call to become professor and chairman of the department of dermatology at the Hadassah Clinic at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The post was perfect for him: he saw himself as a citizen of the world, and had a vast knowledge of culture, history and art. He was already a linguist, and became fluent in Hebrew and adequate in Arabic for his new adventure.

In 1986 he returned to Vienna, and earned a second habilitation in the history of medicine, a specialty he had pursued as a hobby for years. He became attached to the Institute for the History of Medicine and was named chairman in 1989. He led the Institute until his retirement in 2001, and visited it almost daily until his death in 2013, never really stopping work.

The Institute for the History of Medicine is one of the oldest and most distinguished in Europe, occupying a marvellous old building erected by Kaiser Joseph II near the Vienna General Hospital. It houses one of the largest medical history collections, and provided the ideal site for Holubar to pursue his wide-ranging medical history studies.

His books were superbly written and are important reference sources. They include: Challenge dermatology (Vienna, Austrian Ac Sci, 1993), Medizinische terminologie und ärztliche sprache (Facultas universitatsverlag, 1997), Historical atlas of dermatology and dermatologists (Carnforth, Parthenon, 2001), Skin in water-colours, aquarelles from Hebra’s department in Vienna 1841-1843 (Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, 2003) and others.

Holubar was often invited to lecture as he was a brilliant speaker. He helped physicians and scientists from all specialties understand their work in an historical context. He strove to instil a genuine interest in the history of medicine into the medical community, though sometimes he had problems realising that not everyone shared his enthusiasm. He did his best through countless lectures, helping to start the European Society for the History of Dermatology and Venereology, and serving for several years as the archivist of the Austrian Society of Dermatology and Venereology, during which time he successfully saved the 19th century moulages – wax models of skin diseases – from the time of Ferdinand von Hebra, the notable Austrian physician and dermatologist, and restored the neglected Max Wolf Library in New York. Holubar was one of the most widely travelled dermatologists and medical historians; he was famous on all continents and admired as a proponent of medical culture.

Holubar had an extremely wide range of interests and knowledge, and an unbending desire for insight and perfection. He spoke most of the classic and current European languages, and, on the rare occasions when his skills failed him, he knew how to ask for help. When he visited Mexico City for the International Congress of Dermatology, he took along an expert in Mayan languages from the University of Vienna. Although a friendly and welcome companion, Holubar was an ambitious and diligent worker, just as hard on himself as he was on others and in many ways ascetic. He was a devoted cyclist, who was happiest in the saddle. Even though he experienced several severe accidents, which led to early disabilities, he continued cycling with enthusiasm.

Karl Holubar wrote more than 550 publications, including many books, abstracts and posters. He received seven prestigious national and international prizes, was a regular, corresponding or honorary member of some 20 scientific societies or academies, and also received many scientific and civic honours. He was married to Christine Holubar née Bodenstein and had two sons, Karl and Leopold.

With Karl Holubar's death, Austrian science has lost a unique, multi-talented individual, a scholar of the highest rank in two fields.

Peter Fritsch

[Dermatology 2013;226:91-2; ‘In Memoriam: Prof Karl Holubar (1936-2013)’ Indian Dermatol Online J 2013;4:165-6]

(Volume XII, page web)

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