Slobodan Lang

BMJ 2016; 354 doi: (Published 09 August 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;354:i4383
  1. John Ashton

Influential campaigner who, during the Yugoslav wars, identified hate as the biggest threat to public health

Slobodan Lang was a remarkable man in every way. Larger than life, a charismatic public health leader, and an international humanitarian, he was one of the most important influences on my approach to public health from the moment I met him through my WHO Healthy Cities work in the late 1980s.

Slobodan had a brain the size of a medium sized planet and humanity to go with it. This was shaped by his family, geographical, and professional background, as well as by his intelligence and intuition.

He was the child of a mixed religious background in the then state of Yugoslavia, which brought together a potentially toxic mixture of races and religions under the leadership of an accomplished but tough communist leader, Tito.

Slobodan knew first hand, both in his family and in daily life, what these potential fracture lines could result in. These influences, together with those from studying in the birthplace of primary healthcare and its founder, Andrija Stampar, produced a unique character who was prescient and reflective, but also a man of action.

When Yugoslavia was falling apart, Slobodan galvanised his community to put on a remarkable international Healthy Cities conference in Zagreb.

As public health officer for the city, he made himself fully available on a regular basis to be petitioned by any citizen on health matters, and when the conflicts began he stood between the Yugoslav army and the striking miners in Kosovo in mediation.

At the Healthy Cities conference in Gothenburg in 1990—with hatred stirring across the Balkans—he involved me in crafting a remarkable statement on tolerance and reconciliation which identified hate as the biggest threat to public health, in a desperate effort to head off the impending disaster.

This statement was used in parliaments of the Healthy Cities family but to no avail, and when the worst happened Slobodan threw himself into a life of constant travel and political and humanitarian intervention between Croatia and the international agencies in a desperate search for a peaceful solution. He drew the world’s attention to how mosques and churches had become the targets for war and death.

Slobodan was as much a teacher as a practitioner. He was much loved by students and colleagues around the world, but especially at the regular summer schools of the Interuniversity Centre, which he was instrumental in establishing in Dubrovnik as a focal point for those of all races and faiths and those of none to explore public health together.

This work lives on in the form of the European Training Consortium’s public health summer school—now heading for its 30th year—which rotates around Europe under a remarkable faculty, a real legacy for Slobodan.

But let me finish on a lighter note. On his visits to Liverpool in those grim days, no trip was complete without calling in at the Liverpool Medical Institution where a huge catering tin of Nescafé would be waiting for him in the kitchens to take back to Zagreb, where it would fuel those important public health deliberations. We miss him, but his example and his legacy live on.

Slobodan Lang (b 1945; q University of Zagreb School of Medicine), d 23 February 2016.

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