Dr. Lazar (Laza) K. Lazarević (1851-1891)

The founder of Serbian neurology and the author who first described and published the straight leg raising test

Sanja Drača

SerbianSerbian

Biography of Lazar K. Lazarević


L. Lazarević during his studies in Berlin

L. Lazarević during his studies in Berlin

 


General State Hospital in Belgrade, built in 1868.

General State Hospital in Belgrade, built in 1868. The building of the hospital was initiated by Prince Mihailo Obrenović and it was financed by donations from all layers of the Serbian society.


 

Lazarević as medical corps lieutenant-colonel

Lazar K. Lazarević as medical corps lieutenant-colonel (for his efforts during the Serbian-Bulgarian war, he was awarded the Order of Saint Sava, class IV and the Order of the White Eagle, class V)

Lazar (in short Laza) K. Lazarević was born on May 1st (Julian calendar) or May 13th (Gregorian calendar) 1851 in Šabac, Serbia, to Kuzman and Jelka, a family of merchants. His father died when he was nine years old, and he took care of his mother and three sisters throughout his entire life. He attended primary school in Šabac, and secondary school in Belgrade. He graduated with a degree in law from Belgrade’s The Great School in 1871. During this period he translated works of Gogol, Chernyshevsky and also of Faraday and Darwin.

In 1872 he started his medical studies at the Friedrich Wilhelm University of Berlin. He was very poor, making his life in Berlin as a student difficult. However, he was inspired by the lectures of outstanding teachers such as Bardeleben, du Bois-Reymond, Braun, Dove, Fasbender, Frantzel, Frerichs, Hartmann, von Helmholtz, Henoch, Hirsch, Hofmann, v. Langenback, Lewin, Liebreich, Martin, Mendel, Meyer, Munk, Oppeinheim, Pinner, Reichert, Remak, Schweigger, Simon, Traube, Virchow, Waldenburg and Westphal.

Lazarević interrupted his medical studies in Berlin in order to volunteer in two wars in which Serbia was involved: The First Serbian-Turkish war in 1876 and the Second Serbian-Turkish war (1877–1878). During the First Serbian-Turkish war he was engaged at the military ambulance, as the assistant in the field hospital of Drina Division. In the Second Serbian-Turkish war, he was appointed medical lieutenant in the hospital of Drina Corps.

In 1879 Lazarević finished his studies and earned the title of Medical Doctor of all fields of medicine. On March 8th 1879 he completed his doctoral thesis about the toxic effects of mercury in experimental animals in German (1). His thesis was published in Repertorium der analytischen Chemie. Today, The library at the Université de Strasbourg, the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford and Centre for Research Libraries in Chicago, hold the dissertation of L. Lazarević.

The patriotism of Lazar K. Lazarević is reflected in his decision to return to his small country devastated by the war, in 1879, after graduation at one of the most prestigious European universities, where he was attending the lectures of the world’s top scientists. Upon his return, by the Decision of the Ministry Council he was appointed a Belgrade district physician. On August 1, 1879 he took his oath: “I, Laza K. Lazarević, a Belgrade district physician, do swear by Almighty God that I will devote myself to the Sovereign, to Serbia and to the People and that I will fulfill my duties and engage my medical knowledge properly and faithfully…” (2).

In 1881, as primarius, he was appointed as the Head of the Internal Medicine Department of the General State Hospital in Belgrade, which gradually became an outstanding hospital for internal diseases under his guidance. He was also a founder of the first laboratory in the hospital, which was rather innovative in Serbia at that time. As soon as he founded the first laboratory in Serbia he started to examine the slides under the microscope.

Dr. Lazarević was also the pioneer of clinical geriatrics. In 1881 he founded and led the first geriatrics institution in the world, a 13-bedded “Department for treatment of old patients” in the house located opposite the General State Hospital in Belgrade. G. Mulley in his article “A History of Geriatrics and Gerontology” wrote that “major actors of the dawning of clinical geriatrics are Marjory Warren, Laza Lazarevic, Jean-Martin Charcot and Ignatz Nascher” (3).

In 1881 he was married to Poleksija Hristić, and they had four children together. Unfortunately, he and his wife tragically lost their two sons, who died of tuberculous meningitis.

In 1881 by a decree of King Milan Obrenović, he was appointed a member of the General Medical Council of the Kingdom of Serbia.

Dr. Lazarević was an honest, noble and highly moral person. In the time that he worked at the hospital and at his private practice, he demonstrated his extraordinary kindness for humanity by healing for years the members of various associations for free, (such as Belgrade Trade Youth and Women’s Society members) as well as the poor. He donated medicine and money, probably remembering his own poverty during his student days in Berlin. According to some sources he prohibited dailies to publish letters of praise from his patients (4).

Some contemporaries of Lazarević stated: “He became known as the first practitioner in Belgrade. His cheerful manners, open-minded and kind character, his conscientiousness and his knowledge gained through university studies and regular following of scientific innovations in the field of medicine were the reasons for why everyone was looking for his help. He treated all of his patients equally, whether rich or poor, without looking for compensation and often even refusing it” (5). V. Đorđević, a colleague and friend of L. Lazarević described his attitude towards one of his patients, a poor teacher and widow: “First of all, Lazarević went to the Minister of Education and arranged for that poor woman to be moved to a village where the school would be close. He prevented that the ill woman and her children die from starvation and then he proceeded to heal and take care of her. Although he was weak and ill, he visited her twice a day, as if she was his richest patient. The treatment lasted for a year. When the poor women died, he gave all of the money he had with him to a man who had taken responsibility to take care of the orphans…” (5).

In the fall of 1885, Lazarević participated in the Serbian-Bulgarian war. By the decree of Milan Obrenović, the king of Serbia, he was promoted to the rank of medical corps major. On the first day of the Battle of Slivnica, his godfather V. Đordjević met him in the Hospital of Caribrod (today Dimitrovgrad) and wrote: “…the rooms were full of wounded people. They were bandaged and were sleeping in their wet garments on straw mattresses, positioned next to each other on the floor in rows in each room … I followed Dr. Laza, who, with his shirt sleeves rolled up to the elbows and bloody apron showed me the room where I was supposed to sleep, and he returned to his work… sad and unhappy” (6). Due to the large influx of wounded people V. Đordjević sent L. Lazarević to the Military Hospital of Niš in November 1885. Despite his bad health condition caused by active tuberculosis, Lazarević remained a noble, self-sacrificing professional. He successfully reorganized the hospital. He succeeded in increasing the number of beds for 1200 wounded and improved the difficult situation that he faced there. For his efforts during the war, he was awarded the Order of Saint Sava, class IV and the Order of the White Eagle, class V (7).

In 1888 Lazarević was elected as a Corresponding Member of the Academy of Arts of the Serbian Royal Academy based on his literature, although he could have been elected as a physician-scientist as well.

In 1889 Lazarević was promoted to the rank of medical corps lieutenant-colonel. He also became the doctor appointed to the Royal Court by the King of Serbia, Milan Obrenović and the member of the Military Medical Committee (5). Dr. Lazarević accepted this promotion, but with one condition, he did not want to leave the hospital where he had been working since 1881.

On December 29th 1890 (Julian calendar) or January 10th 1891 (Gregorian calendar) Lazarević died of tuberculosis at age of 40.

After his death, his friend Lj. Hristić wrote: “Laza rolled his eyes back, his face expressed severe pain, he looked one more time and understood what was happening, he smiled and passed away… The smile on his face certainly meant: I am dying serenely; I do not owe anything to anybody, whilst everyone owes me; I have not insulted anyone, and I did not return any insults; I worked to earn, but I did not overcharge anyone; I am a poor man, I supported poor people; I was born as nobody, I created a name my descendants and compatriots will be proud of – Finally, what else could we expect! ” (8).

Dr. Lazarević left behind a large body of work that was not only done by the exceptional physician, scientist and talented writer, but also by the “highly moral and noble personality, loyal to his people and to his profession until the last moment of his life” (4). In 1891 the academician M. Valtrović, speaking about the losses of the Serbian Royal Academy in 1890, stated (9): “In addition to his amazing literary works, Lazarević participated in three wars, and he proved himself to be an expert of medical science and a gentle defender of the wounded and sick, as well as an ardent patriot devoted to his compatriots and to his country. But, his medical work in the time of peace, his every day compassion and care while dealing with his patients, and his zeal in the fight against the disease exceeded all limits. Dr. Laza treated his patients like his own brother or relative, trying to help them with all his knowledge, strength and soul”.
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  1. Lazarević L. Inaugural-Dissertation “Experimentelle Beiträge zur Wirkung des Quecksilbers. Nebst einem Anhange über den Nachweis des Quecksilbers mittelst Electrolyse”. Berlin: Friedrich-WilhelmUniversität zu Berlin, 1879.
  2. Kanjuh V, Pavlović B. Dr Laza K. Lazarević as physician-scientist (1851-1891). Lives and work of the Serbian scientists. Ed. Sarić MR. Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts: Biographies and Bibliographies. Volume IV, II Section, Belgrade, 1998, 3-32. (Serbian)
  3. Mulley G. A History of Geriatrics and Gerontology. Eur Ger Med 2012; 3: 225-7
  4. Jovanović Lj. Foreword. In: «Stories of Laza K. Lazarević». Srpska književna zadruga Belgrade-Zagreb 1898. (Serbian)
  5. Đorđević V. Physician dr L. K. Lazarević. Otadžbina 1891; 27: 13-14. (Serbian).
  6. Contemporaries of L. Lazarević. In: Laza K. Lazarević- Collected works. Ed: Nedić V. Narodna knjiga 1961; 233-252. (Serbian)
  7. Nedok AS. Lieutenant-colonel dr Laza Lazarević- a physician, writer, warrior (1851-1890). Vojnosanit Pregl 2011; 68(12): 1084–1087. (Serbian)
  8. Hristić Lj.N. Letter to brother Hristić N. from december 31st 1890. In: Laza K. Lazarević. Collected works. Prosveta, Belgrade, 1956, 571. (Serbian)
  9. Valtrović M. The losses of Academy: Dr Laza. K. Lazarević. Yearbook V for 1891, Serbian Royal Academy, Belgrade 1982, 75-77. (Serbian)