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DR RADMILO PETROVIĆ'S LIFE STORY: 'During the smallpox outbreak, hospital rooms smelled of death, and we had no safety goggles'
Foto: Ana Paunković


DR RADMILO PETROVIĆ'S LIFE STORY: 'During the smallpox outbreak, hospital rooms smelled of death, and we had no safety goggles'


He lost his mother when he was only five months old. After World War II, his father was unjustly incarcerated as he was alleged to have helped the Chetniks. He lived in modest circumstances and changed secondary schools depending on which relative could take him in. As his academic record at the Faculty of Medical Science was excellent, he was employed at Torlak, where he worked for a full 35 years. He has seen suffering, panic, and death. He was a poet, he points out, for no more than a year. This is his life story.

I was born on 22 May 1935, in the small town of Trstenik, the Rasina District, on the banks of the West Morava. My father was a civil servant, and my mother a teacher at a vocational school of crafts. My mother died when I was five months old, so I don't remember her and haven't really had a mother. My sister was two and a half years old at the time. I don't know the cause of my mother's death – my father said it was one thing, but my grandma said it was another. Ultimately, it doesn't really matter.

My father remarried a year after my mother's death. My stepmother was called Desanka. I was very attached to her. She had a child from her first marriage who had died, so I was a sort of a replacement for the child she had lost. She loved me so much that, when we grew up, my sister used to say, "Your mother is Desanka, and mine is Saveta." She was a little bit jealous because Desanka had loved me so much.

I spent the first five years of my life in Trstenik. Then my father set out to build a house in Vrnjačka Banja. There's a rule of thumb among the Serbs – dig in a shovel and lay the foundations first, and find the money later. My father was like that too, meaning that as a child, I never had candy, ice cream, or chocolate. All the money went into the house. My father completed it six days before World War II broke out. So, the old house, located smack in the middle of the fork at the turnaround, is now rotting away.

Radmilo sa maćehom („drugom mamom“, kako je zove) Desankom, 1942. u Vrnjačkoj Banji
Radmilo sa maćehom („drugom mamom“, kako je zove) Desankom, 1942. u Vrnjačkoj Banjifoto: Privatna Arhiva

Schooling during the war

When the war started in 1941, my father took us to his home village of Donji Adrovac, near Aleksinac. I completed the first four years of elementary school in the village of Prćilovica, which meant that every day I walked three or four kilometres to school. As a student, I was a foot-traveller and a farmer – I would go to school in the morning, and pick up a hoe and head for the field to hill corn and plant potatoes in the afternoon. A childhood spent in a village was rustic and no good. Every so often, the Germans would interrupt the classes at school. They dug trenches all around. We used helmets with holes in them as toys. They were left behind after someone got killed… I remember that once we were playing in those trenches during recess. The school bell started ringing. All the children left, but I couldn't get out. I was late for class, and the teacher slapped me across the face. Such were the times.

And after the war – what can I say – utter penury. As for my father… He ended up in prison because he was alleged to have helped the Chetnik Movement. He was a foolhardy patriot. A stupid patriot. He helped everyone. The Chetniks and the Partisans alike. He would always say, "My fellow Serbs, don't argue with one another. When the war is over, then we will agree on power. Let us first beat the Germans." The Chetniks wanted to have him shot on a number of occasions, followed by the Partisans, and eventually he ended up in prison in Niš. He spent a year there. I don't know how this affected me, but I have also been dewy-eyed all my life.

Radmilo sa ocem Svetomirom i maćehom Desankom, 1. januara 1960. na Kalemegdanu
Radmilo sa ocem Svetomirom i maćehom Desankom, 1. januara 1960. na Kalemegdanufoto: Privatna Arhiva

My father wanted me to be a doctor

After elementary school, which lasted seven years then, I enrolled in the Fourth Preparatory School for Boys in Belgrade. I lived at a relative's. My father didn't have enough money to put us through school, so he was always trying to find an accommodation for my sister and me. That's how I ended up completing the following school year in Ćuprija, staying with my stepmother's parents. Eventually, when a gymnasium was opened in Trstenik, I transferred and graduated there. I was an average student, nothing special… In 1953, I enrolled in the Faculty of Medical Science. It wasn't my choice. It was my father's orders. He was that sort of person – his way or the highway. First he made sure my sister got enrolled, and then myself, but I really wanted to study the Serbian language and literature. I didn't particularly like what I was studying, but I was nonetheless a good student. The only problem was that I had nothing to live on. However, as I was getting excellent grades, I got a job as a demonstrator at the Institute of Anatomy, and ended up practically lecturing on anatomy to junior students. I dissected cadavers and showed organs to students on the spot. I did that for four years, and that's how I made ends meet. I didn't have enough time to hang out with friends or go to parties. Perhaps just in year one, while my father was still supporting me and paying for my education. I was even a member of a junior writers' club. I wrote poems and stories. Some of them were published.

First day at work

I got married when I was 23. My wife Nada was also a medical student. We had our first son, and I started looking for scholarships all across Serbia. However – and you might not be familiar with this – back then medical doctors were in ample supply in Serbia, and scholarships were hard to find. I got one from an Osijek Health Centre. They paid for myself and my wife. As the most dewy-eyed person in the world, I believed that, if you were awarded a scholarship, you had to go to the people who provided it and spend some time working there. So, in 1960, when I graduated, I went to Osijek.

When I arrived there, I gave them my degree certificate and the employment record book, which I had been issued with at the Savski Venac Municipality Office and which was in the Cyrillic script. The Chief Physician was Jewish, Đorđe Šozberger was his name. That guy became very fond of me later on. He says to me, "Take the documents to the Personnel Officer." Now, you might not know this, but back then, personnel officers were big shots if ever there were any. In fact, this was a political figure tasked with controlling the chief physician as well as everyone else. So I go in. The guy is six foot five in both height and width. I say to him, "I'm the new doctor. The Chief Physician just sent me to give you the documents and sign for a coat and stethoscope. I also need to have a stamp made." He took the documents and said, "That Jew's dragged another Serb in here. Listen, if a war breaks out, there's not gonna be enough poles for you Serbs." That's what my first day at work was like.

Radmilo na lekarskom kongresu 1975. u Puli drži predavanje
Radmilo na lekarskom kongresu 1975. u Puli drži predavanjefoto: Privatna Arhiva


Incidentally, a broad drive to eradicate polio in children was initiated at the time. The Chief Physician assigned me to the post of doctor at the vaccination centre, so I was involved with vaccines from day one. I was covering all of Slavonija and Baranja for about three or four months, working from 6am until midnight. Nada was at university in Serbia during that time. She lived in her parents' home with our son. I went to visit them every weekend.

In 1961, I enlisted in the military. I gave my wife the money that I had made – a hefty sum, because I was paid per vaccine – and headed over to the School of Active and Reserve Medical Service Officers in Belgrade, and then to the Nova Gradiška Garrison, where I was head of the clinic and did the rest of my service.

Job at Torlak

When I came back from Osijek, I started looking at job ads in the newspapers and applying. I was invited to an interview by the Torlak Institute of Virology, Vaccines, and Sera, and the City Institute of Public Health. I opted for Torlak. I was greeted by the director, Dragoljub Antonijević. He asked me, "What would you like to do?" I said that I would like to specialize in microbiology, to which he said, "No can do. See those vaccines? When they leave Torlak, I don’t know what happens to them. And many people lie to me. I don't know how useful the vaccines are, what sort of protection they afford and, if they are harmful, how harmful they are. I need an epidemiologist ." And so… That was my duty in the following 35 years at Torlak. I studied all the vaccines using statistical, epidemiological, and fieldwork methods. Vaccines are mostly administered to children. Previously, there were four or five vaccines to be administered, and now there are 11 or 12. My job, covering the entire Yugoslavia, with a special emphasis on Serbia, was to monitor the number of vaccines administered; check if anyone had become ill; contact all the health centres and analyse the reports they sent me; and calculate vaccine effectiveness. I would get calls from all across the country whenever there was a reaction, and you would head over there immediately to check if it had been caused by the vaccine or not.

Whooping cough

Initially I did most of my work on whooping cough. I obtained my PhD in 1977 in the epidemiology of whooping cough. This infection was very widespread in children, and the vaccination started in 1960. At the time, only Torlak had the facilities to perform whooping cough diagnostics, so I went everywhere and personally took swabs from children all across Serbia. Whooping cough is a disease that makes children cough so hard that they lose their breath. It becomes so intense that it sounds like a dog barking. They also call it the 100-day cough. When children become ill, it can last as long as six weeks. Back in the day, if you walked down the street, all you could hear was children coughing around you. The tremendous strain led on occasion to tongue, nose, and eye bleeding. The disease usually affected very small children, below the age of five. Everyone keeps asking me where whooping cough has gone. And it's disappeared. Tens of thousands of children used to get ill per year, and up to 1,000 would die. Well, it's gone as a result of a widespread vaccination.

Supruga Nada, pedijatar u domu zdravlja Voždovac, sa unucima, godinu dana pre smrti. Unuci su Zdravko (najbliži njoj) i Dušan, a unuka Tijana
Supruga Nada, pedijatar u domu zdravlja Voždovac, sa unucima, godinu dana pre smrti. Unuci su Zdravko (najbliži njoj) i Dušan, a unuka Tijanafoto: Privatna Arhiva


Subsequently I did fieldwork examining the diphtheria vaccine. That disease is also gone, as is polio. I spent a month in 1964 in Dragaš, the Gora Municipality, in order to stop a chickenpox epidemic. I waded through two meters of snow, went from one Gorani house to the next, and administered penicillin to children in order to prevent pneumonia. The chickenpox vaccine wasn't made until 1970. In 1960, I started work on vaccinating children against polio. The large-scale epidemic – which doesn't kill, but maims instead – was cut short then. Children would be left with paralyzed arms and legs. It was tragic… I worked on all the infections and vaccines used to eradicate them. My job wasn't about sitting in an office or a lab. I visited all the municipalities in Serbia, and traversed just about all the roads in Bosnia. I have seen many things and gone wherever a problem was reported. I still remember many patients.


We were the only and the last country in Europe hit by a smallpox epidemic. It started between 10 and 15 February 1972, somewhere in Đakovica. Back then, no one knew that it was smallpox, the doctors thought it was a penicillin allergy. However, on 15 March, Dr Ljubinko Stojković, the then director of Torlak, told me that a team of our experts from the Federal Institute of Public Health and the Infectious Diseases Clinic had gone to Kosovo to collect samples, and that smallpox was suspected. We discovered it under an electron microscope on 16 March 1972, but the authorities only broke the news of the disease on TV on 29 March, when they realized it could no longer be kept secret. There had been rumours before, the news travelled by word of mouth.

During the pandemic, my role was to be on a reconnaissance crew of sorts alongside my colleagues, Dr Radoslav Bošković and Dr Julijana Pecić Lula. The three of us were a roving team. Wherever smallpox was suspected, we would head over there as a matter of urgency, collect puss containing the virus from the skin lesions using a scalpel, as well as take blood from a vein, also full of the virus. Then we would carry these back to the Torlak laboratory.

At first we didn't have hazmat suits. We would put on a mask, a few layers of clothing, gloves, galoshes and – off we went.

I took samples for all suspect cases. We had lots of so-called false alarms. Many more than real ones. People called whenever they saw a skin change, and we had to test them all. We went into quarantines as well. This one time we almost got killed travelling to Đakovica in a helicopter. The weather was very bad, a storm was raging. And I only started to get an idea of what had been happening after I returned, driving from the Batajnica airport to Torlak in my car. There were uprooted trees around me. Only then did it occur to me what might have happened had the aircraft crashed. What would have happened with the material we had taken from the patients. The packages with the material didn't say "Keep away! Smallpox". Who knows who could have gotten infected and where new hotbeds of this nasty epidemic would have sprung up? The gods smiled upon us.

You have to be afraid

Radmilo sa kolegama epidemiolozima iz Banja Luke, 2000.
Radmilo sa kolegama epidemiolozima iz Banja Luke, 2000.foto: Privatna Arhiva

The smallpox mortality rate worldwide stood at 30-50 percent. We had 20 percent, which was primarily due to the good sense of our infectious disease specialists – Professor Miomir Kecmanović, grandfather of the tennis player Kecmanović, and assistant professor Vojislav Šuvaković, father of the politician Uroš Šuvaković. The two of them were in Đakovica. As far as I was concerned, of course I was afraid of smallpox. You have to be afraid. Smallpox is transmitted very easily, in all possible ways. Through the air, as well as through contact, and the virus is incredibly resilient in the environment – it remains on surfaces for a long time.

We had two infected doctors: Dr Žarko Đurđević from the Skin Diseases Clinic in Belgrade, who had admitted the patient from Novi Pazar. At the time, smallpox still didn't officially exist here, nor was it suspected. When the patient started to vomit blood, he was transferred to the Trauma Centre at the First Surgery Clinic. That's where Dr Jugoslav Pantić got infected as well. I was the one who took samples from them. Nurse Dušica Spasić from the First Surgery Clinic also got infected and, unlike the doctors, died. She had wiped off the blood and was taking care of the patient. She was in a much closer contact with him. Later, nurse Milka Đurišić also died in Čačak.žica Kantar   Photo: Ana Paunković

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