IB Surgeon and Life-Long Activist

March 18, 2013

On the last day of 2012,

Moisès Broggi. Photo Jordi Borràs.

Dr. Moisès Broggi decided to not celebrate New Year’s Eve for 105th time in his life. Some months earlier we had finished up an article together, L’exili i el silenci (“Exile and Silence”). It would be the last piece of writing of someone whom many of us had come to think of as immortal. Our article sheds light on the long and dark decades of exile suffered by many prominent scientists—some of them close friends of Dr. Broggi’s—who had developed their often ground-breaking work under the auspices of the prestigious scientific institutions of the Spanish Second Republic. Dr. Broggi always especially regretted one particular aspect of the Spanish Civil War: the fact that the “losers” were far superior to the “winners” in terms of scientific knowledge. Of course, this had notorious consequences for the scientific development of a country that, in the 1920s and ‘30s, seemed poised to take its place at the scholarly forefront of Europe.

In the mid-30’s, Broggi himself was enjoying his first professional experience working in the surgery services of the Hospital Clínic while finishing his PhD at the recently created Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. Some months after the beginning of the Civil War, he was asked to serve in the medical services in and around Madrid. In March 1937, on his way to this destination, he stopped off at Valencia, the provisional capital of the Republican Government, and did some book and music shopping. He didn’t know it would be years before he would have the leisure to engage in hobbies like those. Soon after, he was named chief of the surgery services of the International Brigades. He was stationed at the Hotel Florida, at the Plaza del Callao in Madrid, where many of the brigadistas were also lodged. It was here that he first met Ernest Hemingway, whom he remembered as a hard-drinking, energetic propagator of the legend of the heroic Defense of Madrid, and with whom he spent time at the Navacerrada front, in the mountains outside of Madrid. At the Hotel Florida Dr. Broggi also coincided with a fellow physician with whom he would be collaborating closely: the Canadian doctor Norman Bethune, the great innovator of blood transfusion techniques, first in Spain and later in China during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Not long after, Broggi met the famous commander George Nathan at a terrace on the Plaza de Cervantes, in the historic town of Alcalá de Henares; the picturesque hero of the Battle of Jarama would die a few months later in the front line of Brunete. Despite all the calamities of the war, Broggi always remembered his experience with the International Brigades fondly. He saw many of the brigadistas as genuine Don Quixotes, fighting for justice and a better world.

Notwithstanding the myth created by Hemingway in For Whom the Bell Tolls, Broggi always maintained that the fighting around La Granja was of little real importance for the war. However, La Granja was the site of a very important breakthrough in military medicine: the creation of mobile surgical hospitals, an initiative led by Broggi himself. What made this advance possible was the close and unusual collaboration between the medical staff and the military command, something hard to imagine in a normal army. The introduction of mobile surgical units near the front lines allowed for a much speedier recovery process for the wounded, and saved countless lives in the Spanish Civil War and all the armed conflicts that followed.

Although his sympathies were clearly on the side of the Republican Government, Broggi did not allow ideology to interfere with doctor-patient relations. That’s not so strange in someone who considered his vocation to be above all human passions; in that sense, Broggi was humanist doctor in the best Hippocratic tradition. He firmly defended the Government’s actions, along with those of the Communists, in the May 1937 crisis in Barcelona against the anarchists of the CNT. Broggi was horrified by the rear-guard excesses committed by anarchist patrols since the beginning of the war, and was of the opinion that there can be no freedom without a basis of law and order. At the same time, he wished nothing more than for the war to end. Given the international context, he was convinced from the outset that the Republic didn’t stand a chance.

Later in life, Broggi continued to be deeply concerned with the world, particularly by what he perceived as a triumph of materialism over the human spirit. He was also worried about the consequences of overpopulation, which he saw as one of the greatest threats facing humanity in the 21st century. He was well aware of the irony that it is the advances in his own field, medicine, which have increased human longevity and contributed to the inversion of the demographic pyramid. He himself was a prime example of this trend, reaching five times the human’s period of growth—as much as any animal species is thought to be able to achieve. This problem, he believed, could only be fought by rethinking the global system, starting with the eradication of extreme poverty in countries with high population growth. He also believed that a global government is the only instrument capable of solving global problems. He was well aware that this was a difficult goal, but he maintained that it was essential, and more possible than ever thanks to the power of the media. At the same time, he was convinced that certain local problems could only be solved by local governments with a strong local presence and local connections. It was from this practical consideration that he framed his support of Catalan nationalism. A die-hard pacifist, he never stopped fearing the threat of nuclear weapons and their unlimited power of destruction. These last years, he felt like he was living an eerie déjà vu, with a European crisis scarily similar to the one he had experienced in his youth, in the dark decade of the thirties.

Dr. Broggi never went into exile, although some British friends tried to convince him to leave Spain. He was well aware of the risks he faced in a Catalonia ruled by Franco. But his family and his future wife Angelina were in Barcelona, so he decided to stay. What ultimately saved his life was the fact that, during the war, he had helped free the imprisoned sister of the president of the court that tried him. Still, he couldn’t help being included in Franco’s anti-Republican purge. He was stripped of his professional and academic achievements and forced to start again in private practice. His exile, in other words, was internal. The price he paid was no less dire: personal silence, fused with the mantle of general silence that covered Spain for almost four decades.

Having spent his long professional life in close association with death, he did not fear it. He thought of aging as a pleasant, slow preparation for a hopefully painless end. Death, he believed, does away with one’s body, whose matter is ready for renewal, but not with one’s spirit, which is part of the universal spirit that ultimately moves everything, from the dynamics of the stars to the lives of us humans. “To feel alive you must think about death, and understand that man is not only material. Both the ego and its circumstances are complex.” Perhaps this helps explain somehow why Moisès Broggi seemed to be immortal.

David Jorge, a pre-doctoral researcher at the Complutense University of Madrid and lead editor of H-Spain, has written about the role of the League of Nations in the Spanish Civil War and is working on a biography of Santiago Carrillo.


2 Responses to “ IB Surgeon and Life-Long Activist ”

  1. Tino Rodao on March 22, 2013 at 9:40 pm

    Did he write something? Did he write some memories? Then, at least, you recorded his conversation, do you, David? A wonderful article that opens interest about this character, Congrats

  2. Miguel López A. on May 4, 2013 at 12:20 pm

    What an interesting life!! Great article!