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Anaesthesia pioneer and former WFSA president Prof Otto Mayrhofer celebrates 100th birthday

Internationally renowned Austrian Anaesthesiologist, Prof Otto Mayrhofer turned 100 on Monday 2 November 2020. WFSA Council member, Prof Anna Spacek, caught up with him at his Vienna home to discuss the birth of anaesthesiology in Austria, his memories of the first World Congress of Anaesthesiologists and his time as the fifth WFSA President. Prof Spacek found Prof Mayrhofer in good health and as intellectually quick and accurate as ever.

Prof Spacek speaking with Prof Mayrhofer

Prof Anna Spacek – What drew you to anaesthesiology in the first place?

Prof Otto Mayrhofer – I graduated in medicine in December 1944, having been able to continue my studies during the war. Initially, I wanted to be a surgeon and accepted an unpaid post at ViennaUniversity Surgical Department. As the most junior member of the surgical team I was tasked with providing anaesthesia. At that time there were two basic techniques, a regional technique with local anaesthesia or open drop ether. It was a further 4 months until I was actually allowed to hold any instruments and assist in surgical procedures. I soon realised that surgery could not advance with the poor forms of anaesthesia that were available.

Around this time, a contingent of American doctors visited Austria’s medical schools in Vienna, Graz and Innsbruck. Amongst their numbers was a New York surgeon, Prof Brunswig who was a thoracic specialist and worked alongside the anaesthesiologist, Prof Cullen. Given my good grasp of English I assisted Prof Cullen and became fascinated by the new endotracheal anaesthesia I was seeing.

At the same time the head of Department of Surgery, Prof Denk wanted to be the first to operate on the lung in Austria so he organised for me to build on this interest and undertake a 6 month anaesthesia training course in the UK. Using my newly learnt anaesthesia techniques I was part of the team that performed Austria’s first lung operation in 1948 at the Allgemeines Krankenhaus Hospital (AKH).

AS – How did the field of anaesthesiology grow in Austria?
OM – Together with around 40 interested colleagues, I helped found the Austrian Society of Anaesthesiology in 1951 and was voted in as its first President. The First Austrian Congress of Anaesthesiology was held 1952 in Salzburg and was attended by around 200 anaesthesiologists from German speaking countries and beyond. The Salzburg Congress was a milestone in the development of anaesthesiology in Central Europe with anaesthesiology being officially recognised in 1952 as a new and independent medical speciality in Austria. 1952 also saw the publication of the first issue of the “Der Anaesthesist” journal.

AS –What are your recollections of the 1st WFSA World Congress in 1955?
OM – In 1955, I presented, together with my co-authors Frey and Huegin, our new textbook of Anaesthesiology at the 1st World Congress of Anaesthesiologists at Scheveningen, in Holland. With around 300-500 participants travelling from the US, Canada, UK, Scandinavia and other Western European countries I was surprised how many countries were presented at the WCA. But unfortunately there was no-one from Eastern European or Italy.

AS – What was your role within WFSA
OM – By the 1st WCA the WFSA was well established. Initially, I had been on the Executive Committee for the first two congresses and then in 1964 at the Sao Paulo WCA, Prof Geoffrey Organe (UK) became President and I became Secretary and a Prof Henning Poulsen (Denmark) became Treasurer. At the 4th Congress in London, in 1968, I stayed as Secretary for a second term and Prof Francis Foldes (USA) became President. In Kyoto, Japan, the 5th Congress in 1972, I became President in an unopposed election by acclimation after a proposal by Foldes. The WFSA Executive were presented to the Japanese Crown Prince, the son of the Emperor before the start of the meeting.

AS – What was your greatest challenge and success as President?
OM – I was invited to Congresses all over the world and met an incredible number of people. In 1972, I was the first Visiting Professor to be invited to Australia from a non-English speaking country. A notable achievement was to expand WFSA membership to include the Chinese society and a number from Eastern European countries.

The Iron Curtain was a big problem; it was almost impossible for those behind the Curtain to travel to the West but Vienna provided an easier option for doctors from Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Romania to attend meetings. In the 1960’s I provided training to Professor Jurczyk from Posen in Poland and welcomed a number of Drs from the University of Szeged in Hungary. The University later acknowledged this training by awarding me my first Honorary Doctorate when I was only 51 years old.

By the end of my Presidency the WFSA was now strong enough to support less affluent countries or regions to raise their standard of anaesthesia care. In my time, the creation of training centres in the Philippines and in Venezuela were very important in this regard.

AS – What advice would you offer to further the impact of WFSA’s work?
OM – WFSA’s support has now expanded all over the world. It was very important. For example the Pulse oximetry was provided by WFSA to many under developed countries. My recommendation for the new WFSA board and members is to just keep on going, keep on pushing and keep assisting.