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Biographical entry Zilahi, Clara Clotilde (1927 - 2013)

BA Cambridge 1948; BChir 1955; MB 1956; FRCS 1965.

22 May 1927
Vienna, Austria
27 March 2013
King's Lynn, Norfolk
Campaigner and General surgeon


Clara Zilahi was a surgeon in Wisbech, Great Yarmouth and Lincolnshire, a campaigner against reform in the Catholic Church and a director of the pressure group Railfuture. She was born in Vienna, Austria, on 22 May 1927, the only child of Ladislaus Zilahi and Agnes Paula Zilahi née Beke, devout Catholics of Hungarian descent. Ladislaus Zilahi was a lawyer and an associate of the psychotherapist Alfred Adler; he became secretary of the Adlerian Verein für Individualpsychologie (Society for Individual Psychology) and was editor of the Internationale Zeitschrift für Individualpsychologie (International Journal for Individual Psychology), founded by Adler in 1914. Zilahi's mother, a child psychologist, was also an Adlerian. Both parents were strongly opposed to the Anschluss, Hitler's plan to incorporate Austria and the Sudetenland into a greater Germany, and when the German Army marched into Vienna in 1938, the Zilahis fled to Britain.

Initially they stayed with a family living near Beccles in Suffolk, but soon afterwards moved on to Heswell in Cheshire. Clara, who had arrived in England at the age of 11 barely knowing any English, attended school in Heswell and soon became fluent, using a book of Shakespeare's plays to help her learn the language. Clara and her mother then moved to St Albans, where she attended the High School for Girls. Here she expressed a desire to study medicine at Liverpool University, but her headmistress encouraged her to apply to Cambridge to study languages. She sat and passed the entrance examination and was admitted to Newnham College. She gained her BA in French, but a few years later returned to her college to study medicine, qualifying BChir in 1955 and with her MB in 1956, attending Bristol University Medical School for her clinical studies.

After qualifying, she held a surgical post at the General Hospital in Stockton-on-Tees, and set up home with her mother in Norton. She gained her FRCS in 1965.

She was a devout Catholic and, in the 1960s, became concerned by what she saw as the growing trend towards modernism in the Church. When Latin was displaced from the liturgy by the vernacular, she joined the newly-formed Latin Mass Society. In November 1969 her mother died, with her father dying just six weeks later. Soon afterwards, Clara gave up medicine to devote her time to the traditionalist movement within the Catholic Church. Early in 1972 she moved south, to the parish of St Dominic in Downham Market, Norfolk, reputedly the last parish in England where Mass was celebrated exclusively in the traditional Roman manner.

Clara Zilahi eventually resumed her career in medicine, and worked part-time as a locum in the accident and emergency departments of hospitals in Wisbech, Great Yarmouth and Lincolnshire. She finally retired from surgery in the early 1990s.

She had a wide range of interests, including animal welfare, ecology, cycling and gardening. She often had a stall in Downham Market, where she sold home-grown plants for charity. She was an enthusiastic rail traveller. She first became involved in rail user groups in 1968, when she joined the Railway Invigoration Society and campaigned to prevent the closure of her local station at Billingham. After her move to Norfolk, she belonged to the Fen Line Users Association from its foundation in 1985, and helped form the West Norfolk Public Transport Users Association, which she served as secretary. She was a committee member of the Mid-Anglia Rail Passengers Association, and also served as membership secretary for the East Anglian branch of Railfuture - the campaigning arm of the Railway Development Society. She joined the Society's board in 2004 and was appointed director with responsibility for disability issues.

Clara Zilahi died in Queen Elizabeth Hospital, King's Lynn, on 27 March 2013. She was 85.

Sarah Gillam

Sources used to compile this entry: [Railfuture - accessed 9 April 2016].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England Library