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A True Fairy Tale from Germany: Part 2

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Hann.Munden has been called "one of the seven most beautifully situated cities in the world." The town was also home to the famous Dr. Eisenbarth, who traveled the country to operate on locals.

Photography by the authors

We had noticed in Marburg the ruins of the 28-bed hospital built by the tragic St. Elisabeth in 1228 — tragic because her mother, the Queen of Hungary, was murdered when she was a six-year-old child; she was then betrothed to a distant monarch and died at the age of 24. A sad life, perhaps, but she had joined the Third Order of St. Francis and devoted herself to living simply and caring for the poor and sick.

Elisabeth was canonized rapidly within four years and became one of the most popular saints of the Middle Ages. She visited the hospital every day. The insert is an 1883 sepia drawing showing Elisabeth caring for the sick.

In Marburg, a block away, we pass a monument to Emil von Behring, who developed the antitoxin for the scourge of infancy, diphtheria — and, subsequently, received the first Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology.

A short drive from Marburg, in the dense woods near the Sleeping Beauty Castle and under the famous 1,000-year-old oak tree, we meet the fictitious, revered character of Knight Dietrich.

In this Medieval country where Knights Teutonic were both real and part of the culture, there was a Knight Dietrich, the stalwart and dependable local hero always ready to rush in and help the underprivileged. His presence in the German Fairytale Road Celebration reminds us the Brothers Grimm had company, even competition, when they charmed avid listeners with tales around the fireplace.

There was another presence that simple folk were pleased to find a’coming to their village: Dr. Eisenbarth. We will find him in a town with a castle as its coat of arms — Hann.Munden.

Hanau and Steinau show the spell-breaking disappointment of the present century and Marburg suffers from inexplicable and surely unnecessary graffiti, but Hann.Munden — and its beloved doctor — come up as a pleasure and a photogenic joy.

A street sign shows we are on the right route to settle any skepticism that the good doctor ever lived. By Jove, there’s his grave — the only one with fresh flowers.

“His grave stone was created with a coat of arms although he was not nobility,” says our guide.

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Yet Eisenbarth’s life was good enough to encourage the German government to give his memory a postage stamp. And my goodness, here’s the house he lived, and died, in. He’s depicted with a fearsome syringe and a canister at his feet.

Not only does his house sign show a coat of arms, too, but the town hall clock puts on a show on the hour and half hour when doors open and out comes the famous character (who as a Middle Ages traveling doctor would also be a skilled dentist).

Eisenbarth died in 1727 before there were proper medical schools, and many persons practicing “surgery” had learned it under a guild system or picked it up on the road during those days of the itinerant barber-surgeon. Eisenbarth’s grandfather, father and brother-in-law had been surgeons but not equally famous. He was well known all over Germany. He even invented a hook for pulling down nasal polyps and a needle to remove cataracts.

We want to know more about this character whose name we once saw and photographed for this website on a wall in Wittenberg — the far-off location is no surprise because he traveled extensively operating on locals including sessions in that town in 1698.

We sit down with our guide, Dr. Gudrun Keindorf who has a Doctorate in Philosophy.

“It was like a circus, a carnival when Dr. Eisenbarth came to town,” she says. “He might arrive with more than a hundred musicians, entertainers and assistants and the loud music would drown the cries of pain from his patients. But it’s important to know that the death rate from surgical procedures in those days was about 80% and his death rate was 50%. People attributed that to his ‘contract with the devil.’”

Gudrun told us a detail we did not know. Eisenbarth’s son, a shy would-be doctor, had noticed after a procedure clouds of black smoke would pour into the sky from his father’s back room.

“This frightened people and surely was proof he was allied to the devil,” Gudrun says.

The son went in several times and found that after Eisenbarth had operated he was putting his dirty tools on the hot coals of the fire. And that was causing the smoke and perhaps part of his better death rate. The more people suggested he was in league with the devil the more he smiled. It gave him, he felt, a marketing advantage that his less flamboyant son was never able to achieve.

About 70 years after his death forgetting his successes university students wrote and sang a song belittling him. It still survives in German beer halls. Translated from the German it goes with too many verses something like this:

My Name is Doctor Eisenbarth

For curing people I've an art,

My treatment makes the blind men walk,

And helps the lame to see and talk,

To the sexton's son at Dideldum

I gave ten pounds of opium,

He fell asleep; years passed away,

And still he sleeps until this day.

In Vienna once a man was ill.

His hollow tooth I cured with skill,

I took my gun and blasted it.

Good Lord, he's never felt so fit!

At Langensalza lived a man,

Whose goitre no two hands could span.

I used a rope for tourniquet.

Probatum est, he's good this day.

These are the ways I work my cure,

They’re tried and tested, that´s for sure.

That every treatment's sound and good.

I´ll swear upon my doctor-hood

He may have an old song critiquing his work but he also has a contemporary local actor who dresses in period costume. This Dr. Eisenbarth demonstrates his dentistry on the amiable Antje Jahn, managing director of Hannoversch Munden Tourism, while our guide smiles because she’s not the patient.

Walking in this town of the Middle Ages that has 700 to 800 half-timbered homes is like wandering around Disneyland. It’s no surprise Walt Disney went to Germany for his castle and some of his stories. The town square, we see, is named after the good doctor.

We were interested in this character Eisenbarth and felt our readers would be, too, but this town with two rivers and 28,000 inhabitants in Lower Saxony would still charm Americans without an interest in the history of Medicine.

The town history is fascinating from its first mention in documents in the year 802 to the Renaissance Town Hall itself. The strange name came about because it used to be called Munden but became muddled with the city of Minden; it was then called Hannoversch Munden but got confused then with Hanover, hence the present name.

The website has useful information on what has been called “one of the seven most beautifully situated cities in the world.” When you gaze across the Werra river at those homes that have stood for 600 years you see the reality of that remark.

And when you turn round and walk back to your hotel, the Allter Packhof, you note the woman’s expression on the statue in front and feel you should say, “Keep looking. Isn’t this a great view?” And she replies, “Yup! Sure is!”

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.


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