Petros S. Kokkalis
( 18. 9. 1896 - 15. 1. 1962 )
A Distinguished Doctor with humanitarian sensibility and a social vision
By Thanassis Christou,
Associate Professor of Modern and Contemporary History
of the University of Peloponnese
Professor Petros Kokkalis was born on September 18, 1896, in Livadia, the second child of Socrates Dim. Kokkalis (1856 – 1944), the philologist-headmaster from Arahova, and of Polyxeni Petrou Nakou (1866 – 1937) from Livadia, having as an ancestor Loukas Alex. Kokkalis (1755-1838), one of the Assembly men of the Third National Assembly of Troizina (1827), who invited Ioannis Kapodistrias (1776-1831) to the Revolutionary Greece.
He completed his general education in Athens and Nafplion (July 3, 1911) with honors and on September 28, 1911, he registered at the Medical School of the University of Athens while on October 16, 1913, he continued his studies at the Medical School of the University of Berlin, while entering the narrow circle of friends and students of Max Planck (1858 – 1947), rector then and later Nobel Prize winner in Physics (1918). In July of 1914, and just before the beginning of World War I, he successfully passed the hard subject exams of his undergraduate course (Physikum), immediately applying for military service at the German army, but was not approved on the grounds that he was a foreigner.
On April 15, 1915, he moved to Zurich’s comparable faculty, serving for one year as the assistant of Ernest Ferdinand Sauerbruch (1875-1951), the great German Professor of Surgery. On May 8, 1916, he continued his studies in Berne, next to Theodor Kocher (1841-1917), the equally eminent Professor of Surgery and Nobel Prize winner (1909). On December 19, 1917, he took the state exams (Staatsexamen) and earned the doctorate, while on January 22, 1919, he completed his studies, attaining the enviable title of Doctorate of Medicine.
Τhe young doctor immediately started working as the assistant of Professor Fritz de Quervain (1868 -1940) in Berne, and starting in October 1919 he continued in Munich, again as an assistant of E. F. Sauerbruch, until March 1928, while completing his specialization in Surgery.
Then, in mid-1928, he returned to Greece, where in February of 1929, he was hired as the director at the Surgical Department of the municipal hospital “Elpis”, while in April 1929, he became Lecturer of Surgery at the University of Athens and on October 17, 1930, he undertook the Department of Surgery at the “Astyclinic”.
On April 10, 1935, Petros Kokkalis together with Nikolaos Louros (1898-1986) and Konstantinos Choremis (1898-1966) were appointed as regular professors at the Medical School of the University of Athens, as a result of the political fermentations, which followed the unsuccessful movement inspired by Venizelos on March 1, 1935.
Petros Kokkalis occupied the seat of Operative and Topographic Anatomy, and also took over the management of the 3rd University Surgical Clinic at “Evangelismos” hospital. The road of scientific establishment and medical recognition was now wide open.
On July 5, 1939, he was elected at the 2nd Seat of the Surgical Clinic and at the same time he took over the management of the 2nd University Surgical Clinic at “Aretaieio” hospital.
Being a general Surgeon with innovative academic training, an advanced organizational vision and a groundbreaking research project, allowed him to lay the foundations in four new specialties of Surgery in Greece, such as thoracic, cardiac, vascular and neurosurgery. Petros Kokkalis was also the inspirer and main writer of the two-volume collective writing “Surgery” (1934), known as “Surgery of the Eight”, where he and Zannis Kairis had the redaction and which was co-authored by eight Athens Medical Professors.
This work was a milestone for medical literature and university teaching of Surgery at the time, allowing at the same time its creator to become the first person in Greece to introduce thoracoplasty and removal of the frenetic nerve for the treatment of tuberculosis, as well as to perform the first pneumonectomy with the Tourniquet method, for the treatment of lung defection and the first pericardiectomy for the release of compressive pericarditis.
In the context of managing the editorial needs and not just of the specific project, the established now academic teacher met Niki Kouletsi (1.4.1913-12.3.1997), whom he married on November 23, 1938, and had two children, Socrates (1939) and Avgi-Polyxeni (1944-2015).
With the eruption of the Greek-Italian War on October 28, 1940, he decided to serve the country ”in the frontline”, and went to Epirus as the Chief Doctor advisor of the Hellenic Army.
The collapse of the front in April 1941 finds him in the back, while the entrance of the German and of the Italian troops, a little later, in Athens, leaves him with a terrible impression. That is why he does not sign the cooperation protocol requested by the Italian authorities, with the rest, an act that marks the beginning of his resistance against the conquerors. A lot more followed of course, such as, his refusal to the Chief Doctor of Luftwaffe in Athens, Wilhelm Tönnis (1898-1978), along with Marinos Geroulanos (1867-1960), to establish together a German-Greek neurosurgical center at the “Agios Savvas” hospital, causing the conquerors’ wrath, who expected another kind of behavior, following their arrival.
On June 10, 1942, focusing on the famous “Trial of Accents”, with accused Professor Ioannis Kakridis (1901 - 1992), who supported the ancient Greek monotonic system, Petros Kokkalis considered his moral duty to file a written testimony before the Disciplinary Board of the University of Athens, strongly supporting the academic freedom of his persecuted colleague, who was much burdened by the recent Metaxas dictatorship and had also suffered much from the Occupation.
The specific trial was the litmus test in these circumstances, through which each professor was judged for his mentality, that of obsolescence and delay or that of progress and renewal. Petros Kokkalis seems to have chosen, without hesitations and amalgamations, the road of modernization and revision, by becoming a full member of the demotic Greek movement and by adopting the demotic language in his communication.
So, as expected, he became a target of various Greek governments, which were collaborating consequently, starting in March 1942, they gradually revoked his public offices. In mid-1943, he was approached by Konstantinos Tsatsos (1899 – 1987), who integrated him to the ”Socialist Union”, next to Alexandros Svolos (1892 - 1956), Konstantinos Karamanlis (1907 - 1998), Aggelos Aggelopoulos (1904 - 1995), Xenophon Zolotas (1904 - 2004), Petros Garoufalias (1901 - 1984), Georgios Oikonomopulos (1903 - 1981), and other distinguished personalities.
Through these people he came into contact with the EAM circles, in order to find common ways of collaboration. This effort however, was not successful, so he decided, immediately after the celebration of the national anniversary, on March 25, 1944, to escape to the Middle East. Insurmountable difficulties however did not allow him to descend into Egypt and in order to avoid the close surveillance track by the German secret services, he used the acquaintances he had made earlier with the EAM people.
As a result, on the aftermath of March 25, 1944, as he left home for Alexandria, he was found on April 2, 1944, due to the degraded situations at Viniani and the ELAS rebels. Moreover, his anti-Nazi stance and his involvement in the network of supplying resistance organizations with medical material from major state hospitals, were known to the conqueror.
Thus, in the first reshuffle of the Political Committee of National Liberation (PEEA), on April 19, 1944, Petros Kokkalis took over the role of the Secretary of Social Welfare and temporarily that of Education. Circumstances now pushed him into the political arena.
In September 1944, and while he was at Fourna in Evritania, he becomes a “prominent” communist, and from now on he will follow his road with consistency and conscience, close to the choices and the strategy of the socialist movement.
Petros Kokkalis will return to the liberated Athens, with the last troop of EAM, on October 16, 1944 and will intensively experience the December events, his re-departure from the capital and his transition to Trikala, to finally return to his home, following the signing of the Treaty of Varkiza (February 12, 1945).
Afterwards, the state mechanism will arrange his removal from all the important public positions he held and he will thus find himself struggling for his own survival and that of his family. He himself will bitterly note in his journal, on April 11, 1947: “I did a lot of things in my life. Both good and bad. It does not matter that they praised us for the bad and they accused us of the good!”
On May 24, 1947, he will sail away from Piraeus for Marseille with the ship “Korinthia”. On August 25 of the same year, his family will also follow his steps. Once they all meet, they will head to Belgrade, while the Civil War is at its peak.
On December 23, 1947, “Free Greece” radio station will announce the formation of the Provisional Democratic Government, with Petros Kokkalis taking over anew the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare. The eminent Surgeon is the only person who participates in a ministerial post at the Provisional Democratic Government in 1947 and has also an authoritarian role as secretary at the PEEA of 1944.
In May of 1948, he will be also assigned the chairmanship of the “Child’s Assistance Committee”, KKE’s (Communist Party of Greece) mechanism for children’s’ protection. He will also help this endeavor spread in countries of the Democratic Republics. In the framework of this Committee, Petros Kokkalis will give his best self, showing his excessive sensitivity and deep cultivation.
Following the defeat of the left movement in August of 1949, he was found in the countries of Eastern Europe, first in Budapest, Hungary, until July 25, 1950 and then in Bucharest, Romania. The chapter of his arrival in East Germany (DDR) starts in April of 1955 and will be the last, most dense in events, political initiatives and scientific conquests until his death on January 15, 1962.
Let’s underline the fact that in December 1950, he was appointed member of the World Peace Council, next to personalities of international radiance and prestige like Pablo Picasso (1881 - 1973), Irène (1897 - 1956) and Frédéric Joliot – Curie (1900 - 1958), Yves Montand (1921 - 1991), Louis Aragon (1897 - 1982), John Desmond Bernal (1901 - 1971) and more. In the framework of these important meetings, the eminent Doctor was socializing with people of power, science and the arts, who were able to inform him about global developments.
Already since May 31, 1950, Petros Kokkalis has expressed his desire to return to his scientific action. The timing for such an activation was favorable in November 1954, when he was found in Stockholm, in one of the meetings of the World Peace Council, next to the German Minister of Education Paul Wandel (1905-1995), where he discussed the matter of his settling in the DDR and his occupation in a position, corresponding to his medical status.
So, April 1955 marks the beginning of the arrival of the patriotic Doctor and his family to Berlin and on July 1 1955, he is appointed director of the Institute of Experimental Surgery of the Circulatory System of the German Academy of Sciences (Arbeitsstelle für experimentelle Kreislaufchirurgie), which in 1960 is renamed to Institute of Experimental Cardiac and Vascular Surgery (Arbeitsstelle für experimentelle Herz-und Gefäßchirurgie) and is housed at Berlin’s Municipal Hospital “Friedrichshain”.
On July 3, 1957, Petros Kokkalis is appointed as Professor at the Medical School of Humboldt University, with a teaching assignment in the field of Surgery, effective from September 1, 1957.
The top event in his scientific work was the experiments with transplants of vital organs, such as the heart, lungs, as well as of heads on experimental dogs.
The specific chapter opened with his visit to the Soviet Union and in particular to Moscow and Leningrad, on November 16, 1957, on the occasion of the official celebration of the jubilee, of the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution; a visit that lasted until the end of January 1958. In this framework, he visited a number of research institutes focusing on heart and similar surgical operations, where he met the physiologist and experimental scientist Wladimir P. Demichow (1916-1998), who was distinguished for transplants of vital organs in dogs, immediately after the Second World War.
So in December 10, 1958, and after systematic preparation, W. P. Demichow, together with his partner Igor A. Sytschenikow (1921-1988), arrived in Berlin and Petros Kokkalis’s Experimental Laboratory. They immediately began transplants together, using the newly invented Soviet vascular stapler, which was the subject of admiration by the international medical community and was thus called “sputnik of surgery”.
For the first time, the specific operations took place outside the Soviet Union and moreover for the first time, on German ground, with the presence of approximately 150 distinguished scientists from other countries. On December 19, 1958, the most typical stages of head to dog transplant were recorded on behalf of the German television and were shown to the public on January 14 and February 5, 1959.
The publicity these medical achievements received, not only in the German but also the international media of the time, was inconceivable. Young W. P. Demichow and mature Petros Kokkalis had at the particular moment, acquired the image of a scientific twin, with global radiance, showing its conquests, as proof of the Soviet system’s superiority over the capitalistic West.
Petros Kokkalis offered the Soviet physiologist the content and legalization of the German methodology he lacked. From now on his star was at the zenith of the international medical scene and the invitations he received from the most important European surgical centers succeeded one another.
Let’s underline the fact that these experimental efforts decisively paved the way for the first successful human heart transplant on Louis Washkansky, which the South African Surgeon Christiaan Barnard (1922-2001) performed in Cape Town, a few years later, and in particular on December 3, 1967.
Equally important were the relations of the Doctor from Arahova, both with the Greek intellectuals, politicians and artists, like Nikos Kazantzakis (1883 - 1957), Takis Hatzis (1913 - 1981), Melpo Axioti (1905 - 1973), Giorgis Athanasiadis (1897 - 1970), Giannis Miliadis (1895-1975), Ioannis Kakridis, Alexis Parnis (1924), Marinos Geroulanos, Vasileios Griponisiotis (1910-1993), Georgios Papandreou (1888-1968), Panagiotis Kanellopoulos (1902-1986), Dimitrios Papaspyrou (1902-1987), Giorgos Bouzianis (1885-1959), as well as with his worldwide friends, such as Rudolf Nissen (1896 -1981), Berthold Brecht (1898 - 1956), Helene Weigel (1900 -1971), Carola Nehr (1900-1942), Αnna Seghers (1900 - 1983), Arnold Zweig (1887 - 1968), Nazim Hikmet (1902 - 1963) etc.
This multifaceted panorama of the social contacts and interconnections of the internationally now established Physician reveals a multifaceted, thoughtful, shrewd, bold and deeply cultivated man, with a special interest and knowledge for all types of art. He also held an eloquent friendly relationship with the prime European spokesperson of expressionism Giorgos Bouzianis.
The same view seems to be blatantly supported by his close friend Nikolaos Louros, observing that “he also had some rebellious, for that time, vein. I remember his enthusiasm for Kafka and the painter Kokotska and later for our own Bouzianis, who has also made his portrait”. A rebellious vein, to further extend the thought of the latter, which as if it connected, Petros Kokkalis with the great revolutionary Lenin (1870-1924), in an invisible way, when in 1916 the two men met in Zurich, through the great Avrotelis Eleftheropoulos.
On Monday, January 15, 1962, Petros Kokkalis passed away in Berlin, the city he loved so much and where he lived for many years, on the altar of debt and duty, leaving an overwhelming gap to both his own people and the global scientific community. His body was transferred to Greece, according to his wishes, where he was buried on January 29, 1962, in the Attic land, with personal permission by Konstantinos Karamanlis, Prime Minister of the country then and his old acquaintance.
Indicative of the love and passion he had for the homeland, are the thoughts that Stratis Tsikras (1911 - 1980) memorized on a cover that he wrote on the “Avgi” newspaper, on February 4, 1962, titled “all things in moderation August!” (A memory from Kokkalis in Berlin). The Alexandrian writer met him at the Conference on Byzantine and Modern Greek Literature, on April 1957 in Berlin, organized by the German Academy of Sciences, and as a last thought he wished: «Good homeland familious», to receive the answer, from Petros Kokkalis: “Amen, my dear. We all live with this hope”. “I did not see him since then” the Egyptian scholar concluded.
And I close by reminding the favorite line of the Great Teacher of Medicine, with the humanitarian sensibility and the social vision, Petros Kokkalis, who left the indelible stamp of his charisma on the Greek and global Surgery of the 20th century:
“When you ask to speak, what you have to say must be something more than silence!”