An undetected glandular infection caused 12 year old Akos Pretsch to gradually lose his hearing over the course of two years. Before his affliction, Pretsch was considered by all at his public school as a “distracted, unruly boy” who would be “fortunate to shoe a mare for the Hussars when he completes his education.” In his later journals, he would describe his youth as a ‘cacophony of colour and echoes. A kaleidoscope of imagined joys interspersed with the growling faces of any adult who had the misfortune of trying to control me”.
It all changed for Pretsch when he was struck down with a chest infection around the time of 12th birthday, 1834. The excess phlegm in his lungs was extirpated by the family doctor, but a lingering infection in his sinuses went undetected. For the next month, he continued to feel his lymph nodes were sensitive plums jutting into his jaw but, as a boisterous youth will do, he persevered through the sting of these tender pellets until he no longer felt them – with the pain becoming normal, rather than alleviated. The infection caused his lymph nodes to grow over time to almost twice their size, gradually and subtly pressing onto both the posterior and horizontal canals of his ears. Much like the pain in his jaws, he began to notice a distance in the voices of those around him.
“As if I were inside the convex of a jar their voices would ripple toward me like fish dappling upstream.”
For the first time, Pretsch felt as if time slowed enough for him to absorb the life that was occurring outside of himself – he would call it “a shedding of my ego, my asphyxiate self”. With less interference of the full range of sound, he honed in on those that were most present for him.
“It soothed my brain. All the din and crackling drowned out. All the superfluous energies that triggered a chaos of emotion suddenly fell away. I felt like I was in the presence of a great waterfall – a huge destructive tone of deepness, of spiritual wealth. I realized that beneath the cacophony of man there was the true tone. The infinite hum of the God.”
For the first time the young man found that he could think with clarity. His parents and teachers all noticed the transformation in the boy. The teacher commended the boy for relocating himself to the front of the class, and of his attentive focus during lectures – not realizing that it was simply that the young man needed full attention to be able to comprehend what anyone was saying to him. It’s important to remember that Pretsch was not aware that he was losing his hearing – so slow and subtle were the incremental increases in pressure from his swollen glands that he simply did not notice what he was missing, instead he found he was able to focus fully on what he was getting.
Pretsch admitted that it was not his teachers who inspired him, it was simply the drowning out of others that helped him realize the wonder inside books. He stopped going out, which effectively disguised his struggle to balance steadily on his feet. He sat at his desk and devoured a book every spare moment he could find. We forget to add at this point that before his sickness, Pretsch considered that his true savior was the doctor who not only eradicated his chest infection but also allayed the noise that made him hitherto so incoherent. He began to study all the medicinal books he could find in his father’s library. There he found Medicina Plinii, Hidayat al-Muta`allemin Fi al-Tibb, Colliget, De Medicina, Marcellus Empiricus. Treasures of ancient world’s with so many ideas and rituals, and theories of the body, the mind. He knew deep within his soul that the noise had subsided so he could find his way to these insights. His destiny was to be a doctor, he knew this intrinsically. His progress, however, took an inevitable turn a year later. His grades began to drop dramatically. It was only when His father, calling his name for several minutes, and finding the young man was ignoring him, burst into his room to find Pretsch leisurely leafing through his new copy of Sushruta Samhita. His father stood in the doorway, threatening his insubordinate to cease playing games and face him. As you can assume, young Akos by this time was completely deaf. His father screamed and screamed, believing his son to be playing an impertinent trick upon him. Young Akos felt a blow to the back of his head that sent his face smashing hard into the pages of the Sushruta Samhita, chapter 2 on Aetiology. The blow, and subsequent impact on the heavy tome, not only caused a gush of blood to spill from his nose, it also triggered a haemorrhage from his left lymph node. At 14, he very nearly drowned in his own blood.
Having cleared the infection from his glands, his hearing returned. It was an unwelcome return. The peace he had grown accustomed had left him. Studying was his only passion and to be alone from anyone’s interference his obsession.
“All was tin. All was din. The bird chittering. The leaves bristling. But the worst of all, the sound of boredom. Human’s and their pathetic creation of boredom. Their inconsiderate boredom that they fill with chatter”
Fortunately for him, such a misanthropic perspective was far from a hindrance to the medical profession at this period of the 18th Century, in many respects it was an advantage. By 1867, Pretsch had formed his first practice but he struggled. Not for clientele but for an ability to help any of his patients. He soon discovered that a doctor is, despite the performances of deference, treated much like a maid to his patients. The income from alleviating the ailments of the wealthy of Bucharest was keeping him fed and housed, yet he was dissatisfied with the conditions of life in the city. The poor city folk were, he felt, a rabble of people who had not heard the sound God. Remembering his own childhood he felt he could show them the way:
“Not to see God. Not hear God. But to feel him. To feel his serenity. With your ears.”
In 1834 Akos, with his father’s gift of 2,000 Guldens, opened the door of The Pretsch School of Technological Medicine. The school was celebrated as another example of the Austro-Hungarian’s superiority in the world of scientific research – with the Budapest University of Technology and Economics established in 1782, being the first of its kind in the world. Beyond its medicinal function, the school was much appreciated by the local law enforcement. Pretsch believed that those who needed help most were the anti-social and criminal class, and the police were very receptive to having a new venue in which they could deposit vagrants and undesirables. It was only when the police chief discovered two Romany gypsys staggering around Hősök tere with blood streaming from their ears, screaming about God, that they turned their attention to the specifics of Dr. Pretsch’s treatment.
Pretsch, blind (and not deaf) to the possibility that his treatment would be considered inhumane allowed, police commissioner, Balasz Berta a guided tour of the school. Where Berta was horrified to find that the patients were being locked in wooden boxes and being hurled against walls, and down several flights of stairs. Some were locked in the cellar where hundred of explosives were let off continuously for hours on end.
The facility was closed immediately and Pretsch had his license revoked by the courts indefinitely. He would apologize to the victims of his treatment, though he never made it a secret that this was demanded of the court in order to avoid jail time. He would assert, however, that when in the dock to give the apology his tears were true and real.
“I made them suffer no more than their life made them. They were animals and I brought them to God. I understand now, it is death to see Him. It is madness to hear Him”
M. Fealen is a regular contributor to the Hall Associated Press page, providing slices of history, reporting scientific breakthroughs and celebrating the lesser known giants of our age.
You can find more of his articles in the sidebar. His collection of essays tentatively titled ‘Bruisers’ will be published by the Hall Associated Press in spring 2018.