From the MHH

In memoriam Tobias Welte

 Portrait of Prof Dr Tobias Welte

Copyright: Karin Kaiser / MHH

In the year 1990, a young colleague introduced himself to Professor Helmut Fabel, the then-director of the Clinic for Pulmonology at the Hannover Medical School (MHH). This colleague had started as a civilian service physician in the Internal Medicine department of the Lehrte District Hospital in 1985, spending the first five years of his training there, and had now decided to become an internist, pulmonary specialist, and intensive care physician. This young colleague was named Tobias Welte and outwardly fit the image of a civilian service worker of the late 1980s. Helmut Fabel, always open to unconventional individuals, was impressed after the interview, and Tobias Welte soon thereafter moved to the MHH, or rather to the Oststadtkrankenhaus, where the focus of the Pulmonology Clinic was located at that time.

Tobias Welte benefited from his broad internal medicine training throughout his career. He remained a generalist throughout his life, but in 1990, no one could have foreseen that this young doctor would later represent the entire field of pulmonology, intensive care, and infectiology at a global level, in both breadth and depth. One of the editors of the European Respiratory Journal later described him as an omnivore, to whom manuscripts from all niches of the field could be submitted for review.

While it was quickly evident to all that Tobias Welte was an excellent physician, a scientific career was not predetermined. Therefore, it was surprising when his first publication came in 1991, a case report on alveolitis induced by mesalazine, published in The Lancet. He continued on to become a pulmonologist and intensive care physician in Hannover, and from 1994 to 2004, as a senior physician under Professor Helmut Klein, he built up the Pulmonology and Intensive Care Medicine at the Otto-von-Guericke University Magdeburg. In 2004, he returned to the MHH as a newly appointed W3 professor and clinic director. The rest is history.

Initially driven by the lung transplantation program, the Pulmonology department at the MHH grew, becoming a leading clinic, establishing numerous specialized outpatient clinics, and gaining visibility on national and international levels. The interdisciplinary Intensive Care Unit 14, led over the years in friendly cooperation by the clinics for Pulmonology, Nephrology, and Gastroenterology/Hepatology/Endocrinology, became a hub for the care of critically ill patients from all over Germany.

Infectiology was his particular passion, underscored by the establishment of professorships in Experimental Pulmonology (Professor Ulrich Maus), Molecular Pulmonology (Professor Sabina Janciauskiene-Wallmark), and Clinical Infectiology (Professor Hortense Slevogt). As early as 2001, Tobias Welte was one of the co-founders of CAPNETZ, now one of the world's largest research networks for community-acquired pneumonia. Overall, during his time in Hannover, he secured more than 100 million euros in third-party funding. One of his greatest achievements was making Hannover a location for the German Center for Lung Research (DZL). For the accomplishments of the DZL, he was awarded the prestigious Balzan Prize in 2019, along with Professor Werner Seeger (Gießen), Professor Erika Mutius (Munich), and Professor Klaus Rabe (Großhansdorf).

Tobias Welte was many things: a member, board member, and chairman of numerous professional societies, president of the European Respiratory Society, and for many years, an associate editor of the European Respiratory Journal. He was a sought-after reviewer for countless medical journals, including The Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine. At the time of his death, his publication list comprised more than 1100 entries with over 50,000 citations. There were numerous honors, including the 2023 Sadoul Lecture Award from the European Respiratory Society for his life's work, membership in the Leopoldina, and in 2022, his appointment to the 17th Federal Assembly.

He was a gifted speaker, captivating and convincing. He was spontaneous, and he remained unconventional. A certain discordance between his slides and his spoken words was not uncommon. Often, organizers placed him at the end of programs because no one left before he spoke. In evaluations, the question usually arose as to who would take second place behind Tobias Welte. And who besides him had ever received standing ovations after scientific presentations?

During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the MHH was managed by a clinical task force. He served as vice president and head of medical care during this time. His assessment was influential, and his profound knowledge and balanced attitude made him, more than ever, a sought-after advisor for colleagues and politicians during the pandemic.

But Tobias Welte also had other facets. During his studies, he was a guest listener in art history courses, and he never lost his passion for this subject. In 2021, he curated, together with Oliver Gauert, curator of the Roemer- and Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim, a brilliant exhibition on the topic of epidemics – the curse of the past, the threat of the future. Oliver Gauert became one of his dearest and most important companions. A joint book on the history of infectious diseases is almost finished, and the two had, according to Gauert, "projects planned that would have lasted for the next 20 years."

From this and so much more, nothing more would come. Tobias Welte fell ill, many saw it, but he did not at first. Then everything happened very quickly. In early 2024, the diagnosis of an advanced interstitial lung disease came, along with another finding, an inevitable operation, and then the almost inevitable problems that, despite all medical efforts, led to a rapid and ultimately unstoppable downward spiral.

Tobias Welte passed away on March 10, 2024, much too early. He died peacefully and with dignity on "his" Station 14, almost a bit at home. His family was with him, many friends and companions were able to say goodbye. The news of his death spread like wildfire around the world. Grief and shock were almost indescribable. All major news outlets published obituaries, including the NDR, FAZ, and Süddeutsche Zeitung, as well as the many professional societies in which he was involved, and numerous medical journals, foremost among them The Lancet, where it all began.

All of this is now in the past. The sorrow remains, but it is accompanied by humility and gratitude towards a very special physician, colleague, leader, scientist, teacher, mentor, advisor, and friend that he was to so many. His knowledge, his achievements, but even more so his humor, his humanity, his approachability, his always open door, his warmth and kindness are emphasized. Nowhere is this clearer than in the many condolences that poured in from around the world after his death and were presented to his family in the form of a bound book during an academic ceremony at the MHH. A moving, a dignified, a lasting tribute to a special person.

Text: Marius M. Hoeper & Jessica Rademacher / Department of Respiratory Medicine and Infectious Diseases, Hannover Medical School Hannover, Germany

You can find the virtual book of condolences here.