Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Robert Klopstock: Kafka’s fellow patient, friend, and doctor

Howard Fischer
Uppsala, Sweden

Robert Klopstock (back row) and Frans Kafka (bottom row) with others at Matliary, 1920 or 1921. Via Wikimedia. 

“If I had known then what I know now, Franz would be sitting here talking to us.”
– Robert Klopstock, M.D., to Kafka scholar Angel Flores, early 1940s

Franz Kafka (1883–1924) was born to a German-speaking Jewish family in Prague. He got a law degree at his father’s insistence but worked as a claims evaluator for the state workman’s insurance system, which gave him some spare time in which to write. He lived a life filled with anxiety, extreme shyness, and very low self-esteem. He wrote three novels and over seventy short stories during his brief life. He is considered a major writer of the twentieth century.1

Kafka was diagnosed as having pulmonary tuberculosis (TB) in 1917. In late 1920, he went to a TB sanitarium in Matliary, in the High Tatra Mountains (Tatranské Matliare in Czech) in what is now northern Slovakia. It was there, at the start of 1921, that he met Robert Klopstock. Klopstock was a Hungarian Jew who had started to study medicine in Budapest, but was drafted into the imperial army as a medical corpsman during the First World War. He became infected with TB during the war. Klopstock resumed his studies after the war, but illness prevented him from continuing. He went to a sanitarium in the Tatras, and he and Kafka met in February 1921. Their first discussion was about Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. They also discovered that they were both admirers of Dostoevsky. Klopstock worked there as a sort of physician’s assistant, which covered part of the cost of his stay at the sanitarium. Kafka wrote to his friend Max Brod that Klopstock was “very hard-working, wise, and he has literary talent.” He wrote to his sister Ottla that Klopstock was “extraordinarily clever, real, unselfish, gentle…” Klopstock became the most important person for Kafka in the Tatras.2,3

After Klopstock left the sanitarium, Kafka wrote him eighteen letters in the last four months of 1921, and fourteen letters in the first seven months of 1922. These letters were about Kafka’s health, his literary career, and their mutual friends. In late 1921, Klopstock wanted to resume medical school in Budapest, but a new nationalistic government placed quotas on the number of Jews studying at the university. Kafka used his contacts in Prague to get Klopstock admitted to the Faculty of Medicine of the German University of Prague.4

Kafka’s health deteriorated enormously by 1924. The TB had spread to his larynx, including the epiglottis.5 He could not eat or drink. In the early part of the twentieth century, laryngeal TB accounted for up to 48% of all TB infections.6 Presently, in developed countries, laryngeal TB had been considered rare (fewer than one percent of TB infections). The incidence, however, is rising because of multidrug-resistant Mycobacterium tuberculosis and greater numbers of immunocompromised patients.7 Tuberculosis of the epiglottis is the most painful and the “most rapidly fatal localization” of laryngeal TB.8

Klopstock got permission to interrupt his studies and provided daily care for Kafka from March 1924 until his death in early June. Klopstock continued medical school in Prague until 1926, studied in Kiel (Germany) in 1926 and 1927, and graduated from the University of Berlin in 1928. He then worked in a TB hospital in Berlin, where he became a respected pulmonary surgeon. In 1933, he left Berlin for Budapest and in 1938, he left Hungary and came to the US with his wife Gizela. His entry into the US was helped by letters from Thomas Mann and Albert Einstein.9,10 Gizela Klopstock was an author and translator. She translated part of Kafka’s The Trial into Hungarian,11 and wrote a novel that Thomas Mann praised.12 She never met Kafka.13

From 1938–1945, Klopstock did research on lung diseases at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. He started working as a surgical resident in 1945 at the Triboro Hospital in Queens, New York, which was originally a TB hospital. By 1950, he was the chief of thoracic surgery at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Brooklyn, New York and was a professor of surgery at Downstate Medical Center,14 part of the State University of New York. (The center is scheduled to close this year.) He wrote over eighty scientific articles.15 He was called a “pioneer” in the field of lung surgery,16 and “one of the most skilled thoracic surgeons in the world.”17

Although he was outgoing and social as a younger man, Dr. Klopstock was “an introvert” and reserved in later life. He almost never talked about his friendship with Franz Kafka—the quotation at the start of this article came from perhaps the only time he had an on-the-record conversation about his friend.18


  1. “Franz Kafka.” Wikipedia.
  2. Miroslav Mydilik and Katanna Derzsiová. “Robert Klopstock and Franz Kafka – the friends from Tatranské Matliare (the High Tatras).” Prague Medical Report, 108(2), 2007.
  3. Franz Kafka. Som att gräva skyddrum med naglarna i ett världskrig. Lund (Sweden): Bakhåll, 2023.
  4. Kafka, Som att gräva.
  5. Jeremy Adler. Franz Kafka. London: Penguin Books, 2001.
  6. Naeem Khan et al. “Laryngeal tuberculosis: a diagnosis not to be missed.” BMJ Case Rep, March 17, 2009.
  7. Stephen Wolfe and Steven Handler. “Infectious and inflammatory disorders of the upper airway,” in Ralph Wetmore, ed. Pediatric Otolaryngology: A Volume in Requisites in Pediatrics, St. Louis: Mosby Inc., 2009.
  8. Frank Spencer. “Epiglottidean tuberculosis: Diagnosis and treatment.” Ann Otolaryngol, 6(5), 1927.
  9. Mydilik and Derzsiová, “Robert Klopstock.”
  10. Kafka, Som att gräva.
  11. Mydilik and Derzsiová, “Robert Klopstock.”
  12. Biblio.com. “The posthumous papers of Robert Klopstock [by Kafka, Franz]. Klopstock Robert, thoracic surgeon (1899-1972), friend of Franz Kafka.” 2007.
  13. Paul Malone. “Book review. Hugo Wetscherek, ed. Kafka’s letzer Freund. Der Nachlaß Robert Klopstock (1899 – 1972). Mit Kommentierier Erstveroffentlichung von 38 Teils ungedruckten Briefen Franz Kafkas. Roman. Vienna: Inlibris, 2003,” Gale Academic Onefile, 2007. link.gale.com/apps/doc/A180315413/LitRC?u=anon~b4495863&sid=googleScholar&xid=87bfcc11
  14. Ernst Pawel. Franz Kafka: Ett liv. Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand, 1990.
  15. Leo Lensing. “Book review. ‘Franz would be with us here,’ The posthumous papers of Robert Klopstock, including 38 Kafka letters.” Times Literary Supplement (London), February 28, 2003.
  16. “Robert Klopstock, thoracic surgeon.” New York Times, June 16, 1972.
  17. Carolin Montpetit. “Franz Kafka ne veut pas mourir.” Le Devoir (Montreal), April 1, 2023.
  18. Pawel, “Franz Kafka.”

HOWARD FISCHER, M.D., was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.

Spring 2024



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