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Medical University of Graz

em. O. Univ. Prof. Dr. med. univ. Walter Thiel

   *13.10.1919 in Wetzwalde (today Václavice, part of Hrádek nad Nisou, a town in the Czech Republic)
   +03.02.2012 in Graz


em. O. Walter Thiel was born October 13th 1919 in Wetzwalde (District of Reichenberg in northern Bohemia) as son of a big landowner. After completion of his school leaving examination in Reichenberg he went on to study medicine in Prague. Even at this early stage in his career his inclination towards anatomy and his natural giftedness in this field were evident: while he was still doing his advanced dissection course, professor Otto Grosser, the renowned anatomist in Prague, appointed him voluntary demonstrator. This was especially outstanding and remarkable as he had not even done his exam in anatomy yet.

However, in 1941 Walter Thiel was called to serve in the Wehrmacht. After receiving a gun-shot wound near Leningrad injuring his lower jaw, he was forced to stay at the military hospital in Prague. There he was able to finish the first part of his studies in medicine.

While doing his further military service in a company of students, he continued his studies at Königsberg, Breslau and Würzburg. After the war he eventually came to Graz. Having lost all his possessions and even his native country due to the terrible events of the war, his admirable and seemingly limitless optimism was not in the least broken. This positive attitude, coupled with pugnacity in tackling problems was typical of him. It certainly had helped him through the hard times of the war and dominated his entire life. In Graz he continued his studies and completed his MD in 1947. Grosser’s references did not fail to have an impact in Graz: Professor Hafferl employed him at the Institute of Anatomy as university assistant. In 1957 he qualified as a university lecturer for anatomy and in 1960 he followed his teacher onto the professorial chair.

He had been head of the Institute for exactly 30 years! Over this lengthy period he acquired a reputation as scientist as well as academic teacher reaching far beyond Austria’s borders.

Generations of medical students have come to know him as a committed teacher with a special charisma. Because of the enthusiasm for his field and the liveliness with which he taught it, he was treated by his students with the highest respect and enjoyed great popularity, although or perhaps because he did not give away the exams.

With a unique hard-headedness Prof. Thiel pursued the implementation of his visionary ideas until their perfect final outcome. “Only the best is just good enough” was a slogan for all his life. When he finally considered his achievements he always commented them by saying: “like sugar”.

He managed to create an entirely new anatomical building. Due to his persistent insistence, the old dilapidated institute was replaced by a new one on the basis of his own plans. He set up a very modern and elegant institute, which has not lost its attractiveness over the 35 years of its existence and is still a model for institutes built in many foreign countries. When he became head of the institute, he immediately started developing a new preservation technique because the usually hard prepared specimens were not satisfactorily useful for dissection courses for students and moreover completely unusable for surgical training courses. Although anatomy had lost its importance in the curricula all over the world, Prof. Thiel kept working on his idea and developed an entirely new method of preservation that met all his expectations. The recent worldwide renaissance of anatomy and the gaining importance of postgraduate education have proven him to be right and they are testimony of his characteristic farsightedness.

Hence he provided the basis for the introduction of postgraduate education at his institute after his retirement. In the meantime the institute is one of the most renowned postgraduate education centres with physicians participating from all over the world.

The crowning achievement of his method was the publication of his photographic atlas of practical anatomy, which has been translated into many languages worldwide. Throughout his life Prof. Thiel admired philosophy and after realizing all his visions, he wrote a philosophical essay “Die Ethik des Seziersaals”, a small but important book, which should be warmly recommended to every physician.

His death is a great loss to the anatomical scientific community. Prof. Thiel was already a legendary figure in his lifetime and set his monuments during this time. His beloved wife Iris supported him all his life and devotedly cared for him in his last few months. Prof. Thiel passed away peacefully on the 3rd of February 2012. Dear Prof. Thiel, dear Walter, in the name of all your friends, colleagues and former students I want to thank you so much for all the achievements you have obtained for the Anatomy itself and not least for our Institute.

Obituary by Friedrich Anderhuber

Graz, 10 February 2012

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