A Jewish Medical Hero from Azerbaijan: The Life of Dr. Gavriil Ilizarov

News.Az reprints from Jewish Journal an article about doctor Gavriil Ilizarov, a Jewish Medical Hero from Azerbaijan.

From my own experience and from the life stories of so many others, I know that a Jew, a Christian or Muslim growing up in Azerbaijan all have an equal chance at making a successful life and making significant contributions to our world. One such success story that has always stayed with me is that of Gavriil Abramovich Ilizarov. The story of a great innovator, scientist and thinker that did not have the internet, or many research associates; rather he had a desire to explore saving lives and in the most difficult of circumstances – war.  

Ilizarov was born in 1921 into a poor Jewish peasant family from Azerbaijan, who had moved to Poland. His father, Abram Ilizarov, was a Mountain Jew from Qusar, Azerbaijan, while the mother, Golda Ilizarova, was of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry. When he was little, his family moved back to Azerbaijan, where he grew up in the town of Qusar, near Qırmızı Qəsəbə – a Jewish town. Ilizarov graduated from Buynaksk Medical Rabfac (an educational establishment set up to prepare workers and peasants for higher education) in Dagestan 1939 and was admitted into the Crimea Medical School in Ukraine. At the height of World War II his medical school was relocated to Kazakhstan, where Ilizarov completed his training, and encountered the worst cases of bone and limb damage imaginable among Soviet soldiers who fought against the Nazi army on the Eastern front.

From these experiences, Dr. Ilizarov embarked on groundbreaking discoveries that would change the future for people with severely damaged limbs. Dr. Ilizarov discovered that by severing bones in half, and affixing them slightly apart, so to leave a small amount of space, that the bones would regrow to fill in that space. This meant that even totally shattered bones could be repaired, and even lengthened. Dr. Ilizarov took his groundbreaking discovery one step further and developed an apparatus, based on the mechanics of a bicycle, to set severed bones in place and, at the same time, continuously spacing the bones apart so to facilitate regrowth.

For years, many doctors and scholars scoffed the idea; it was before considered unthinkable to repair a bone through the process of regrowth. But Dr. Ilizarov had seen the results first hand from his many years in Siberia, and he persisted in advancing and perfecting his surgical technique and his apparatus. In 1968, his reputation changed dramatically, after his success in treating the famous Russian Olympic champion, Valeriy Brumel. Brumel had injured his leg in a motorcycle accident and underwent dozens of unsuccessful surgeries before connecting with Dr. Ilizarov. Only then and with the help of what became known as the Ilizarov Apparatus, was Brumel able to recover, where before meeting Dr. Ilizarov he had faced the prospect of amputation. After this, Dr. Ilizarov became famous for his invention and more generally, for his magic touch with healing bones. In 1987, Ilizarov’s orthopedic techniques were brought to America, and he had officially achieved international recognition and fame. That same year, American manufacturers began distributing his apparatus; what they called the Ilizarov External Fixator.

Unlike the experience of Jews living in other nations within the region or regions nearby, Ilizarov  benefitted from the open and embracing culture of tolerance that exists in Azerbaijan, where a Jewish child can grow to become a doctor and scientist, with the rights and freedom to pursue passions and goals; just the same as anyone else. We have seen this with many examples, including our current Supreme Court Judge Tatyana Goldman, our Jewish Parliamentarian Yevda Abramov, and many leaders and heroes across the spectrum of industry and action, today and throughout our past.

Dr. Ilizarov was one of the Soviet Union’s most decorated civilians, and received the Order of Lenin three times, the Order of Hero of Socialist Labor, the highest civilian honors in Italy, Jordan and Yugoslavia. His discovery had finally changed the way in which doctors approach shattered or deformed bones, then and today.

I consider Dr. Ilizarov’s true bravery, this genius to pursue unique ideas; all in the face of overwhelming and tumultuous circumstances. I also consider the fact that he was given the freedom and resources to pursue his career in the first place, a fact that people from my generation and many parts of the world do not take for granted. What if his parents had not moved from Poland back to Azerbaijan, so that he could grow up in safety as a Jew and with support for his studies, rather than endure what so many Jews in Poland endured? How many people would have suffered with otherwise untreatable injuries or deformities if this one man did not have the opportunity to study and relentlessly pursue his passion?

I see there is a very strong connection between the homeland of Dr. Gavriil Abramovich Ilizarov and the accomplishments of his life. Like so many of his Jewish brothers and sisters from Azerbaijan, he nurtured and shared his gifts in order to make the world a better place.


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