Raphael Masschelein (1942 – 2023)

Raphael Masschelein (1942 – 2023)

An enthusiastic teacher, a tireless ambassador

by André Weel

After a few years of illness, Professor Raphael Masschelein passed away on February 3rd in his beloved city of Leuven. As a result, international occupational medicine has lost one of its most passionate teachers and ambassadors.

Born in Zonnebeke in West Flanders, Raf, as he was simply called, went on to study medicine at the Catholic University of Leuven. As a student he was active in protecting the Groot Begijnhof from demolition. This medieval part of the city was bought by KU Leuven in 1962. This prevented a project developer from building flats there. As a champion of the Dutch language, Raf has not left himself unaffected in the language battle that raged at and around KU Leuven between 1962 and 1968. In short, he was a real 'rebellious' student of the 1960s.

Raf obtained his PhD at the University of Amsterdam under Professor Zielhuis. As a result, he was well acquainted with occupational health care in the Netherlands. He therefore constantly made comparisons between Belgium, where occupational physicians did not check absenteeism, and the Netherlands, where they did, at the expense of confidence in the company doctor. Throughout his professional life, Raf remained closely associated with KU Leuven, one of the oldest and best in the world. He became full professor of Medicine, specializing in occupational medicine. He also held several administrative positions at KU Leuven, such as that of chairman of student affairs. This made him very popular with the students. But he is best known as a propagandist of occupational medicine in Belgium and far beyond, including outside Europe.

Raf chaired the ICOH Scientific Committee on Education and Training for several years in the 1990s. He was also involved at an early stage in the European Association of Schools of Occupational Medicine (EASOM), which was founded in 1993, an association of European occupational medicine training schools. I had the pleasure of working with Raf for many years in an EASOM context. He was Chairman of the Board from 1995 to 2003. During that period we organized the first EASOM Summer School in Dresden in 2001. This Summer School was part of a European program called Leonardo da Vinci. The working title was Communication of occupational physicians with workers on health and safety issues. The Summer School was a success and provided a model for subsequent Summer Schools that EASOM still organizes annually. The financial settlement gave me sleepless nights. Without Raf's help - even if we were delayed for a few months - a correct final financial report would never have been delivered.

The board of EASOM met in many European (capital) cities, but Leuven, and in particular the Groot Begijnhof, was certainly a preferred location. We always went for lunch at the nearby Faculty Club. Raf could never fail to point out the difference in lunch between Leuven and Amsterdam. The Burgundian lunch in Leuven was extensive and drizzled with wine. What a difference with the AMC in Amsterdam, where you had to queue for a cheese sandwich and a cup of buttermilk!

In 2003, Raf's son Wouter died in a traffic accident in Zeeuws-Vlaanderen. This fateful incident has deeply affected Raf, his wife and three daughters. Raf paused for a moment, but soon returned to the international scene and resumed the thread.

Raf retired in May 2008. KU Leuven organized an international farewell symposium for him on 29 and 30 May of that year entitled: Education and Training in Occupational Health. There were speakers from all over Europe. The lectures of this symposium as well as an interview with Raf are bundled in an entirely English-language special issue of The Netherlands Journal of Occupational and Insurance Medicine (TBV) that was published in December 2008. In the interview, Raf turned against the monopoly position of English when it comes to publishing and expressed his concerns about the virtual disappearance of Dutch in scientific literature. He also expressed his disappointment about the disappearance of TBV's Flemish counterpart, the Magazine for Occupational Health Care and Ergonomics, in 2007.

Even after his retirement, Raf remained active as a teacher. He provided occupational medicine training and further training in Romania and in the Russian city of Kazan for several years. When that also came to an end, he finally stayed at home more and developed into a passionate gardener and a sweet grandfather.
The last few years have been difficult. Chronic progressive illnesses increasingly hampered his daily functioning. Raf had to be admitted to a nursing home. But it remained possible to communicate with him and to reminisce about the 'good old days' of KU Leuven and especially of EASOM.

We miss a passionate person, a hard worker and at the same time a tireless bon vivant, verbose at times, but above all an extremely amiable and helpful colleague and friend.

© EASOM 2024