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»On the 1st of August I Open, Even If We Have Nothing Else but a Single Chamber Pot!« (Dr. Josip Cholewa)

Notes from the diary of Dr. Franc Novak about the work of the Banovina Institute for Research and Treatment of Tumors in Ljubljana are an extraordinary historical source. Through them a reader is able to perceive Dr. Novak as an ambitious co-founder of Slovenian oncology, and even more so as a dedicated and thorough chronicler of events and people involved in its formation. What is particularly interesting about his diary entries is that he added to them a number of documents.

Naslovna stran dnevnika.

Dnevnik dr. Franca Novaka o delovanju Banovinskega inštituta. | Author Arhiv Republike Slovenije

Notes from the Diary of Dr. Franc Novak about the Work of the Banovina Institute for Research and Treatment of Tumors in Ljubljana

The academician Prof. Dr. Franc Novak (1908–1999) - a gynecologist, one of the founders of partisan medical service, and a world-renowned surgeon - could later in life only briefly remember his first three years of work at the Banovina Institute for Research and Treatment of Tumors. Initially persuaded to work there by the institute’s first headmaster Dr. Josip Cholewa (1885–1942), who chose him for his knowledge of oncology and radiology, acquired during his studies in France, Dr. Novak’s rich and creative professional life was after the year 1945 dedicated entirely to the field of gynecology.    

In his diary notes, presented as this month’s archivalia, Dr. Novak can be seen as an ambitious co-founder of Slovenian oncology, and even more so as a dedicated and thorough chronicler of events and people involved in its formation. His diary notes cover the time from the beginning of work of the institute in 1938 until Novak’s departure to join the partisans in 1941, making a reference also to his first post-war months of work at the Hospital for Women, the present-day Gynecology Clinic. Was it his decision to use an ordinary lined notebook with brown covers for writing down events that were of importance to him and was it for reasons of credibility that he wrote in third person? Were his colleagues aware of his recordings from the very start or did they learn about them later on during various anniversaries and when looking back on the path travelled?

I believe it is safe to assume that Dr. Novak was aware of the significance of the institute, which at the time was the first of its kind in the Balkans, and made a conscious decision, as a thorough chronicler, to “imprint” the life of this predecessor of today’s Institute of Oncology in all its colors of trivial events and inspiring moments. 

His description of events was concise and selective. On average he compiled around ten diary entries a month. Another interesting fact about his diary entries is that he added to them a number of documents, which he numbered and fastened onto certain pages, which he believed needed further explanation. He added official letters, two postcards and black-and-white photos, as well as two short texts. A small, well preserved 6.6 x 9 cm black-and-white photo with a white edge and a visible mark caused by a paper clip is particularly interesting. Although it has been included in a number of publications celebrating various anniversaries of the Institute of Oncology, not many people know that the original photo is kept in Franc Novak’s diary notes.

The management of the Banovina Institute for Research and Treatment of Tumors felt a need (or maybe they were persuaded to do so by Dr. Novak) to have their photo taken at the opening of the institute in August 1938. The photo depicts them standing in front of the newly renovated St. Peter’s barracks, which is where the institute was first located. Standing left to right are the ward doctor Dr. Milan Perušek, the gynecology specialist Dr. Franc Novak, the headmaster, assistant professor and surgeonDr. Josip Cholewa, the gynecology specialist Prim. Dr. Leo Šavnik, a member of the clinical laboratory staff Dr. Lojze Štancer, and the supervisor of X-ray therapeutic machines Prof. Dr. Ing. France Avčin.

Famous quote by the Polish-born headmaster Dr. Cholew which was used as a title for this month’s archivalia reflects personal dedication and zeal that nearly all older generation Slovenian oncologists had in common. On July 1938, Dr. Franc Novak wrote the quote down at the top of the first page of his diary entries. Could it be that by doing so he prevented it from falling into oblivion? Perhaps. One thing is for sure, though; he was most certainly aware of the importance of the historical memory that creates tradition of any institution.

In this regard, Božena Ravnihar, the director of the Institute of Oncology between 1963 and 1982, was a loyal successor. For a number of years she took care of his diary notes, which in 2013 were transferred to the Archives of the Republic of Slovenia, along with some other archival material.

Marija Grabnar