Professor Gerhard Freilinger


Gerhard Freilinger was born in 1927 in Linz, Austria and passed away at the age of 95 on November 28, 2022. Some of his efforts were portrayed in the Miracle of Bonasan.

Freilinger attended high school in Linz, before he was called up to the war on the Slovenian border in 1941 when he was only 15 years old. He spent his 17th in Yugoslavia as a prisoner of war. He then returned home seriously ill with his kidneys. “I was in very, very bad condition after two and a half years of prison in Yugoslavia” he said. “I came home in 1946, very heavily damaged. My soul was sick, my heart was sick”

Freilinger was interested in being a doctor at young age, but it was during his recovery which took more than a year, when he decided to take on medicine as a profession. He studied medicine in Innsbruck from 1947 to 1954. He then went to the USA for two years, where he worked at the University of Iowa, Washington University and Cornell University in the respective departments for plastic and reconstructive surgery. In 1957 he came to Vienna to the Surgical University Clinic and then completed his training at the Hand Surgery Center in Paris and at the Heinola Rheumatism Center in Finland.

In 1975 Freilinger was appointed associate professor for plastic surgery and head of the department for plastic surgery at the Second Surgical University Clinic in Vienna, where he worked until his retirement in September 1993. He then became head of the department for plastic and reconstructive surgery at the Goldenes Kreuz private hospital in Vienna. He was a founding member of the Department of Plastic Surgery at the Second Surgical University Clinic in Vienna, president of the Austrian Society for Plastic Surgery, founding president of the Austrian Society for Senology and board member of the Austrian Society for Space Medicine.

Besides practicing medicine, Freilinger was a passionate teacher and was teaching full-time. He was the author of hundreds of publications and wrote books.

His past made him serve victims of many wars around the world and he traveled many conflict zones. As a reconstructive surgeon he helped victims of chemical weapons in Vietnam in 1967 and 1973 and witnessed immense destruction carried out by the Americans there. He operated and lectured at the university in Saigon. He then worked with Americans in Afghanistan in the period before the invasion by the USSR in 1979. He also traveled back and forth to Moscow where he trained soldiers who wanted to become astronauts.

The 1980s were a turning point in his life and work. “I was asked here in Vienna if I would take heavy cases from the Iran-Iraq conflict [of 1980-1988]. … The first Iranian cases were reconstructive cases. But then the Iranians found out that I also deal with burn cases. …And what I saw was patients who couldn’t breathe, who had erosions, but no burns directly – the first cases of poison gas. So, it was misinformation, and I became involved in these toxicological burns and poison gas”.

He was among the very first in the world to deal with such cases, which were initially very mysterious and presented to him as cases of burning, not mustard gas. “I didn’t know, they didn’t tell me … they were not dying due to skin lesions, but they were dying due to lung diseases. They cannot speak, they cannot breathe anymore, they are heavily, heavily damaged inside. So, it was very strange, it was misinformation,” He explained. “Or they didn’t want to tell us, or they knew and did not know exactly what it was.”

Throughout the 1980s, Freilinger built a reputation for his expertise in burns and in treating poison gas and co-operating with other physicians from Europe. Starting with Iranian patients, the work later continued with Iraqi Kurdistan, and Saddam’s Anfal campaign of the late 1980s. He was curious to find the truth and travelled to Iran which was not received well by his colleagues and government. In Iran, he witnessed first- hand the harrowing effects of the use of chemical weapons against Iran by Iraq, so he documented and reported his findings. He did the same later for Iraqi Kurdistan. His investigations on poisonous gases took him as far as Namibia and Angola, too.

In his personal life, Freilinger married the Swiss Haydee née Fehr in 1959 and had three children with her. Her support made his international work possible. In addition to the Miracle of Bonasan, he is also featured in the Iranian documentary Memories for All Seasons” by Mostafa Razzagh-Karimi which narrates the memories of a group of Iranian soldiers wounded by Iraqi chemical weapons. In December 2016, he traveled to Iran during which he visited Tehran Peace Museum and a ceremony to commemorate his efforts was held in Cinema House in Tehran.