(*Assistant Professor, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Vydehi Institute of Medical Sciences and Research Centre, Bengaluru, India.)
The history of obstetrics and gynecology is replete with instances where lives of women have been saved from the hazardous medical conditions associated with the female genital tract. There are innumerable conditions where ‘ending of the pregnancy’ results in improvement of the health of the mother. The infamous Nazi era was associated with a similar scenario, albeit differently. This was the time where Gisella Perl, the Hungarian obstetrician was a savior to the lives of hundreds of women.
Born into a Jewish family in the first decade of the 20th century, Perl was an outstanding student in the local school. She went on to join medical school, despite initial resistance from her family. She chose gynecology as a profession and married an internist Dr Krauss. By early 1940’s, she was having a good practice in Hungary. It is to be noted that during her otherwise good practice, she had refrained from offering abortions due to her religious beliefs.
During the German invasion that took place she was sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp. One of her initial tasks was to motivate the inmates of the camp for blood donations. However, when the infamous Josef Mengele came to know that she was a gynecologist, she was ordered to identify every pregnant woman and send to him. Perl’s moment of reckoning came when she noticed that every pregnant woman was systematically being executed, as per the existing barbaric norm of racial selection.
Though abortion was against Perl’s religion, she had no choice but identify and abort pregnant women before it came to the knowledge of Mengele. This was the only way to prevent execution of the pregnant woman. It is believed that she had performed hundreds of abortions in the Auschwitz concentration camp with no medical equipment, instruments, gloves or medications. She resorted to manual dilatation of the cervix or rupture of the membranes, with her bare hands, being the only way to save the lives of those women. It is probably the most unique of situations in the history of humankind where the death of an unborn child prevented the death of the mother, the angelic facilitator being Gisella Perl.
Eventually, when the war ended, she managed to move to America and began clinical practice at the Mount Sinai Hospital, New York. It was during this time that her endurance came to the light of the world, when she authored her biography “I was a doctor in Auschwitz”.
She blended with the chores of a normal obstetrician/ gynecologist and authored many papers. The topics she worked on included vaginal infections.[4,5] Her estranged daughter, whom she managed to hide during the war, later reunited with her, and they moved to Israel, where she passed away at the age of 81.
Gisella Perl’s life was an example of living true to the principle that any obstetrician follows “The mother is more important than the child”. Though she lived under circumstances which no modern doctor may ever face again, her courageous behavior and actions shall serve as an inspiration to all gynecologists.
- Gisella Perl. Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gisella_Perl
- Peleg R. Gisella Perl: a Jewish gynecologist in Auschwitz. J Womens Health (Larchmt). 2005;14(7):588-91.
- Weisz GM, Kwiet K. Managing Pregnancy in Nazi Concentration Camps: The Role of Two Jewish Doctors. Rambam Maimonides Med J. 2018;9(3):e0026
- Perl G. Errors in the diagnosis of trichomonas vaginalis infections as observed among 1199 patients. Obstet Gynecol. 1972;39(1):7-9.
- Perl G. Monilial vulvovaginitis following "the Pill". Mt Sinai J Med. 1970;37(6):699-701.
Prasad M. Remembering Past Greats: Gisella Perl. JPGO 2019. Volume 6 No.6. Available from: https://www.jpgo.org/2019/06/remembering-past-greats-gisella-perl.html