Karl. M. Illig, MD [1911 - 2008]
by Dr. Petra A. Illig,
M.D. Jan 2009
|Karl Max Illig: born on August
21, 1911, as the only child to August and Kunigunde Illig (Grötsch) in
Nüremberg, Germany. Soon thereafter
his parents moved to other places in southern Germany, as his father
was in the civil service as a master forester. His father’s family
came from a long line of teachers and musicians.
Except for specialty medical training, Karl Illig’s entire public education occurred between WWI and WWII, and his attitudes and senses of humanity and security were shaped by strong influences during a very difficult time in European history. His life span was long – over 97 years—and he witnessed more technological changes than any previous century in human history — so far. He recalled seeing his first powered airplane flying off a field in Bavaria as a young boy, and watched (and discussed) the beginning of human space flight.
He began his medical training in Heidelberg, Germany, and then was drafted as a medical officer into the German Army Corp in February 1940. By then he was already widowed, as his young wife had died of tuberculosis in a sanitarium. Her name is not known to his survivors.
Karl was raised as a Catholic in his youth in Germany. As a teenager he became a Protestant, joining the Lutheran church. In the early 1960s the Illig family attended the Congregational church in South Dakota. Gradually he became an atheist. He had been a Freemason most of his adult life. In the 1970's he quit the Masons because that group demanded a belief in a higher power.
Most of his time during the war was spent in Norway. He
once told a story of how an attack of appendicitis saved his life. He was
about ready to be shipped out to the Russian front when he developed
abdominal pain which required surgery. The rest of his battalion continued
on, and to his knowledge, none survived.
Treuchtlingen, a major railroad intersection was heavily bombed during WWII. Wife Renata used to tell stories about how she would ride a bicycle from farm house to farm house looking for food for her child, Harald, often stealing eggs from a nearby chicken coop.
In May, 1945, the Army Corp surrendered to the British, and shortly thereafter Karl was shipped to Bremerhaven to US and French internment. Unfortunately, President Eisenhower declared these soldiers to be “Disarmed Enemy Force” (DEF), therefore not protected by the Geneva Convention. During this period of time prisoners often died of starvation and exposure, and many were kept imprisoned until the 1950s. Karl was sent to camp #1001 (there were about 1,600 of them) and recalled much suffering there. He was actually able to exchange a patent he had - for making plastic prosthetic eyes - for an “early release” from imprisonment. In 1947; weak and malnourished, he was finally able to rejoin his family in Germany.
Karl then finished his residency in ophthalmology in Bonn,
After A r n o (1947) and Petra
(1953) were born, he decided to emigrate to the US or Canada, and while
waiting for the paperwork to go through – which took 7 years - he took his
family to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capitol city, where he was the
ophthalmologist of the Haile Selassie
I Hospital (renamed
Hospital) for three years.
There Karl established an ophthalmology practice for the next nine years. He was the first ophthalmologist in South Dakota to have performed a corneal transplant.
By now, Petra was in first grade and Harald was in high school. Soon Karl took up flying lessons. It was as a relatively low-time pilot (about 200 hours) that Karl experienced a catastrophic engine failure while flying his Piper Cherokee 140 at night, in Florida, returning form a medical conference with his wife and daughter on board. He never lost his concentration and executed a perfect emergency landing -- between cars on an unlit rural highway! Renata made Karl quit flying after that, but he was known to occasionally take flying lessons again or fly with Petra in much later years.
After the Oahe Dam on the Missouri River near Pierre, SD was completed, the Illig family moved to Richland, WA, where Karl established a busy ophthalmology practice for the next two decades. Harald by this time was in the US army, and A r n o was going to school in Austria in order to avoid the draft. This was the time in Karl and Renata Illig’s lives where they started enjoying the fruits of their hard labor and living their version of the American dream. They enjoyed their friends - many of whom were scientists and art lovers.
Karl had been
drawing and painting all his life, and loved collecting and
repairing art and artifacts
Music was a huge part of his family life well. He also loved building
and inventing things and he frequently combined his craftsmanship with art
in his workshop.
He even made many of his own ophthalmologic instruments (He had a
US patent on an instrument for cataract operations, amongst others).
Karl was talented.
After the WWII, he made prosthetic eyes for war veterans
in Germany - he would paint, using watercolors, the iris of a veteran's good
eye onto paper and imbed that into a Plexiglas prosthesis which he
manufactured and fitted in his workshop.
In order to assist him with the daily chores, Petra hired a live-in housekeeper named Jana Vance, aka Jana Cadden, Janette Cadden, Jana Illig, JC Vance, who soon endeared herself to Karl, to the point where he was in love with her. Despite urging to the contrary by his children, in part because of the 33 year age difference, they married and began a life together that spanned several communities in the last 8 years of Karl’s life. They lived in the state of Washington - Richland, Spokane, Stephenson, and Vancouver. (link: the house)
These moves were not easy for Karl, who was by then well into his 90’s. Meaningful communication or visits with him by any of this children or friends became nearly impossible, as his new wife controlled his entire life as well as access to Karl. Although she seemed to take care of him and provided companionship for a few years, she may have contributed to the illusion in his mind that he had been abandoned by his children and forgotten by his friends. This was a terrible and heartbreaking time for all who cared about him.
Following a fall sometime in 2006, Karl became
increasingly frail and fragile, and needed constant help with the basics.
His wife often placed him in care facilities during these last two years,
which offered some opportunities to visit him. Petra, Peter and Lena snuck
in a surprise Christmas visit in 2007. By then he was wheelchair
bound, but still able to laugh and communicate. Finally, he was
hospitalized in November 2008, where Petra and Harald were able to visit him
extensively during his last month of life. These days and hours with him
were very meaningful, in that much was discussed and shared. He was even
able to speak with his friends in Germany on the telephone!
August Illig's Geburtshaus,
father of Karl Illig.
Page updated 2013-04-10 No copyright; This material may be freely reproduced as long as THIS source is cited.