The Curious Man

The Curious Man

by Md Hans A. Nieper

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The Life and Works of Dr. Hans Nieper
By Hans A. Nieper Arthur D. Alexander III G.S. Eagle-Oden


Copyright © 2010 HANS A.NIEPER
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4490-6752-6

Chapter One

Childhood and the war

If I were summing up the qualities of a good teacher of medicine, I would enumerate human sympathy, moral and intellectual integrity, enthusiasm, and ability to communicate, in addition, of course, to knowledge of his subject. -Dr. Hans A. Nieper (b. 1928)

Like many doctors, my interest in medicine began long before my actual medical career. As the child (and grandchild) of physicians, medicine has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. There was never really any doubt that, one day, I would become a doctor. With the exception of a brief period of time in which I wanted to be a forest ranger, I have always known that my place is in the field of medicine.

Throughout my childhood, I was intrigued and encouraged by medical and scientific questioning. My family name, loosely translated from German, means "the curious man." It is an apt description not only of me, but also of my parents, Drs. Margarete and Ferdinand Nieper. Of the many scientists who have taught me over the years, they were my first and best teachers.


My father was the grandson of Dr. Ferdinand Wahrendorff, founder of the Wahrendorff Psychiatric Hospitals, and son of Dr. Herbert Nieper, one of the most reputed surgeons of his time. Grandfather Nieper served as Chief Surgeon at the hospital in Goslar, Germany, where he performed the first partial resection of the stomach in 1876. The clinical complex in Goslar is named the "Dr. Herbert Nieper Hospital," and remains a part of the Gottingen University Hospital.

The Wahrendorff Hospitals, located only a few kilometers from the City of Hannover in the town of Ilten, were both the family business and the family home for three generations. When my great-grandfather established the Hospitals, he went against all the prevailing wisdom concerning the treatment of the mentally ill. Instead of merely warehousing or medicating patients, the Hospitals encouraged patients to work and to maintain some sense of autonomy and dignity. The brick buildings were designed to allow the free flow of light and air. Broad lawns and carefully tended gardens separated the wards and administrative buildings, and large trees shaded the connecting walkways. It was an unusual, even revolutionary, sanitarium. And it became the largest and most successful private facility in Europe.

When my father was born in 1887, my grandparents named him after his grandfather, Ferdinand. Like his namesake, my father had a quick mind and an insatiable scientific curiosity. Although he eventually specialized in psychiatry and neurology, my father spent several years in pharmaceutical research and was also a surgeon, technical engineer, and architect. He found a woman with an intellect that equaled his own in my mother, Margarete Krauss.

Compared to my father's family, which had been in Hannover since the thirteenth century, my mother's family was relatively new to Germany. Her maternal grandparents, the Mayer-Seramins, came to Hannover from northern Italy in the mid-1800s, in part because of Germany's well-known tolerance toward people of Jewish descent. Like their paternal grandparents, the Krauss', the members of the Mayer-Seramin clan were business people with a flair for invention and entrepreneurship. My great-great-great-grandfather became a family legend after developing the first shoe polish that could be applied to a shoe and then buffed to a shine.

Surrounded as she was by business people and inventors, it may seem strange that my mother found her way into the field of medicine. But in addition to her bright and extremely supportive family, my mother was greatly influenced by her godfather, Eugen Fischer, Director of the world-renowned Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. By the time she met my father in late 1922, my mother had already established herself as a neurologist and psychiatrist.

My parents met when both were assistant doctors (the equivalent of residents) at a municipal hospital on the shores of Lake Constance. They married in 1925, after an eighteen-month courtship. Shortly after their wedding, my parents joined the staff of the Wahrendorff Hospitals. The isolated life in Ilten suited them well. Despite their brilliance, they were very shy, feeling uneasy outside of their immediate circle of friends and the community of medical and scientific researchers. In the comfortable yet intellectually stimulating environment of the Hospitals, my parents could satisfy their thirst for knowledge without straying too far from home. This was the world into which I was born on May 23, 1928, when my mother was thirty years old, and my father was forty-one years old.


The sprawling grounds of the Wahrendorff Psychiatric Hospitals were an ideal environment for a growing boy. The shade trees and garden were a perfect setting for playing "cowboys and Indians" with my friends, and as the only child of the hospital's senior doctor, I was granted an almost idyllic freedom. Even more important than physical freedom, however, was the abundant intellectual freedom that my parents granted me. The love of scientific debate permeated their lives, and I was usually present at the lively discussions between my parents and their various colleagues.

So from almost before I could talk, I was surrounded by stimulating conversations about the nature of the mind, the relationship between biology and mentality, and the validity of orthodox medicine. As I matured, I was encouraged to join in these debates, asking questions and raising points of my own. Not everyone agreed with this policy. When I was five or six, an elderly relative complained to my mother, "Hans is like a little dachshund, always with his nose into things." Although I doubt it was meant as a compliment, my mother quickly appropriated the phrase and began referring to me as her "little dachshund."

In 1932, when I was a little more than four years old, a young woman was transferred to the Wahrendorff Hospitals from a hospital in Berlin. Though accompanied by a nurse, her papers and records were not with her, and there was some confusion concerning her identity and diagnosis. As senior physician, my father was the first to interview the patient. It was one of the most surprising diagnostic interviews of his professional life.

The patient who had been transferred to his care said she was the Grand Duchess Anastasia, the only surviving child of the last Czar of Russia! The woman, who was known as Anna Anderson, stayed at Wahrendorff for approximately eighteen months, and remained in contact with my father for a year or so following her release. During her time at the Hospitals, my father and his colleagues became convinced that "Anna Anderson's" claims were true, that she had survived the slaughter of her father Czar Nicholas, her mother, a brother, and three sisters.

For my part, I remember Anastasia as a pretty lady with wide-set blue eyes and a full mouth, who was always very kind to me. I quickly got into the habit of visiting with Anastasia on the balcony of her room. While overlooking the gardens, Anastasia would teach me English phrases and listen to my childish stories. I so enjoyed our time together. When Anastasia left the Wahrendorff Hospitals in the summer of 1933, my parents maintained their interest in her case and followed the news accounts of her battle for recognition. Throughout, they believed that the young woman for whom they had cared was the Grand Duchess Anastasia; I, too, had no doubts about the identity of my pretty English tutor. My father collected extensive research, but it was lost in March, 1945, due to a bomb. Yet the evidence has been confirmed by more recent documentation that suggests there is no question about "Anna's" true identity as Anastasia.

While growing up at Ilten, I was taught to think analytically, to question orthodox assumptions, and to explore my ideas and thoughts without fear of censure or ridicule. I was also largely insulated from life beyond the confines of the Institute. My parents' protection gave me the freedom to follow my dreams without being confronted with the more sober realities of life. However, my curiosity and urge for experiencing the realities of the outside world soon became motivating factors in shaping the future direction of my life.


I was just short of five years old when, in January of 1933, the Third Reich emerged as the dominant political force in Germany. The Third Reich actually came to power by popular demand (election), a fact often overlooked by many. Strange though it may seem, the rise of the National Socialist Party made little difference in my childhood. I continued to play with the same group of children; I continued to see the same pediatrician-a Jewish colleague of my father; I continued to listen eagerly to my parents' scientific debates.

I felt the first winds of change in 1938, the year in which my mother stopped practicing medicine and my father left the Wahrendorff Psychiatric Hospitals. In retrospect, I now believe it was a preemptive maneuver on his part. The Reich's attitude toward psychiatric patients was disturbingly evident. Indeed, the government-mandated euthanasia program of eliminating "defective" persons was only a year away. War looked inevitable and, though only fifty-one years of age, my father was not likely to be drafted. He must have known that he and his family would be more secure if he was not affiliated with a private, specialized psychiatric hospital. When war was declared in September of 1939, my father was already established in a new practice. He spent the war years working in a military hospital in Hannover, monitoring the health status of railroad workers.

My next brush with the realities of National Socialism came in the fall of 1940, when I was sent to spend several months with my aunt in Freiburg, not far from the French border, because of the increasing frequency of British air raids on Hannover. An old, beautiful city near the Black Forest, Freiburg was one of my favorite places, and I relished any opportunity to spend time with my aunt. At this time, I was only twelve years old, and still far more interested in science fiction and Westerns than the war and current events. My ever-protective parents did nothing to discourage this political apathy. Although I knew that my pediatrician had moved to the United States, and was vaguely aware of the violence elsewhere in Germany, it was not until my trip to Freiburg that I really became aware of the actions being taken against German Jews.

I returned home one afternoon to find my aunt standing outside, her hands tightly clenched, her face troubled. One of the neighbors-a kind, older Jewish lady by the name of Mrs. Fliess-was being taken away by two men. Confused, I ran to her and asked where she was going. After a quick glance at the men, Mrs. Fliess hugged me, told me to be a good boy, and turned away as she was put into a black car, which quickly sped away. Later, when I pressed my aunt for more information, she said that the government had been deporting many Jewish people, and that Mrs. Fliess was probably being taken to a detention camp in Alsace, on the other side of the Rhine. My aunt's guess was tragically correct. At the end of the war, we attempted to find Mrs. Fliess and learned that she had died in a camp in the Pyrenees, along with thousands of other German Jews who were deported that fall.

My parents and I continued to make Ilten our permanent residence until late 1942, when the Director of the Wahrendorff Psychiatric Hospitals informed my parents that they could no longer live in staff housing. Since my father was working increasingly long hours, my parents decided to move into Hannover to be closer to the hospital. The shift from rural Ilten to the urban center of Hannover was a shock. Although only a few kilometers from Ilten, the war was a much more real and present threat in Hannover, a major industrial city with hundreds of potential targets for Allied bombers. Air raids were a regular event; my parents and I soon became used to retreating to a neighbor's cellar when the sirens sounded. My parents' presence and constant reassurance kept me calm and gave me a feeling of security, though it was a very frightening experience for me, as it must have been for everyone involved.

School in Hannover also was much different from my school in the quiet railroad junction of Lehrte, near Ilten. At Lehrte, my teachers had shown little interest in promoting National Socialist propaganda. In Hannover, such indoctrination was standard fare. However, the war was not going well, so pressuring the "new boy" to join the Hitler Youth was not a big priority. I was able to evade what little pressures there were simply by keeping to myself-an easy task in a new environment.

In addition to the greater focus on National Socialist propaganda, the curriculum in Hannover was much more difficult. At first, I did quite poorly in mathematics, chemistry, and physics. Then, one of my parents' colleagues advised them to give me phosphate salts and, within eight weeks, my grades skyrocketed. This experience would have important ramifications on my work on mineral transporters, many years later.

I did not have much time to enjoy my new success or to become completely comfortable in my new surroundings. The fortunes of war were turning, and as more and more German soldiers were killed or taken prisoner by the Allies, all branches of the military became desperate for men. In January of 1944, my male classmates and I were drafted into the German Air Force. I was sixteen years old.

After a very short training period, I found myself back in Freiburg, where my friends and I were scattered around the city's airport, crouched behind anti-aircraft guns, scanning the skies for Allied planes. My feelings about this experience were mixed. After so many years in the secluded world of Ilten and the Wahrendorff Psychiatric Hospitals, my sudden involvement in the war was both scary and exciting. At times, as we sat behind our guns, occasionally talking in hushed tones on our phones, it felt like one of the games I had played among the trees at Wahrendorff. But when the sirens blasted, the searchlights began crisscrossing the skies, and the voices on the phones became strained and frightened, any illusion that it was all a game was stripped away. We had to fight off more than a dozen attacks of American P-47 Thunderbolt fighters. Miraculously, there were no losses on our side.

Freiburg was a small city with a comparatively small industrial base. Nevertheless, it was a primary target for the bombers sweeping into Germany. Although many of Freiburg's older buildings were destroyed during the war, the town was spared the damage that was common in Hannover, where British and American planes were pounding industrial and military targets around the entire city. In Hannover, local hospitals were often hard-pressed to care for the casualties, since medical personnel and supplies were running short. As I searched the skies above Freiburg, my father worked nearly round-the-clock in Hannover.

In the middle of March, word spread that the Allies were approaching from all sides. For Germany, the war was clearly over. On March 21, 1945, still at sixteen years of age, I was permitted to leave Freiburg and headed north through the rapidly narrowing corridor between the advancing Russian and American armies. I had not seen my parents for months. I wanted to go home.

Throughout most of the war, my family had been very lucky. The house we had rented in Hannover was untouched, my parents had suffered no injuries during the intense bombing raids on Hannover, and I had been sent to a relatively safe location when I was drafted. On March 28, 1945, as I rushed to Hannover, our luck ran out.


Excerpted from THE CURIOUS MAN by Hans A. Nieper Arthur D. Alexander III G.S. Eagle-Oden Copyright © 2010 by HANS A.NIEPER . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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