Lives of the fellows

Michael Gelfand

b.26 December 1912 d.9 July 1985
CBE( 1959) OBE(1956) MB ChB Cape Town(1936) MRCP(1938) DMR Eng(1939) MD Cape Town(1948) DPH Lond(1950) FRCP(1952) Hon LLD Rhodesia(1978) Hon DLitt Cape Town(1978) Hon LLD Birm(1981)

Michael Gelfand was born in Wynberg, Cape Province. After education at Wynberg High School, he entered Cape Town University and graduated in medicine in 1936. During his undergraduate career he was noted more for his skill on the rugby field than for outstanding academic achievement. In 1937 he came to England where, among other appointments, he was house surgeon at the North Devon Royal Infirmary, Barnstaple, and then house physician at Salisbury Infirmary. He obtained his membership of the College in 1938, followed by the diploma in medical radiology.

The critical point in his career came in 1940 when he was appointed to the Federal Health Service of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Nyasaland and stationed at Salisbury, Rhodesia. The establishment was small and for some years Michael had to be his own radiologist and pathologist, as well as physician. He led a strenuous life; being in constant demand as a physician yet also finding time to play rugby for the Police Club and for the Mashonaland team. On Sundays he would frequently visit the Catholic missions, and it was in these early years that he developed his deep interest in the African and his life style; particularly that of the Shona people who form the majority of the population of north-east Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). He slept little and much of the night was spent writing. The Sick African, Capetown, Juta, 1943, ran through many editions and was a landmark in clinical tropical medicine, while his monograph on Schistosomiasis..., Capetown, Postgraduate Press, 1950, had gained him in 1948 the MD of Capetown University, with first class honours. Over the years he was the author of some 45 monographs and 200 articles, and these provided not only much new knowledge of medicine and pathology in Central Africa but also added a new insight into the history and sociology of that area. Notable among them are: Medicine and magic of the Mashona, Capetown, Juta, 1956; Shona ritual..., Capetown, Juta, 1959; Tropical victory..., Capetown, Juta, 1953; Medicine in tropical Africa..., Edinburgh, E & S Livingstone, 1961; Northern Rhodesia in the days of the Charter... ,Oxford, Blackwell, 1961, and Livingstone, the doctor... Oxford, Blackwell, 1957. In 1955 he founded The Central African Journal of Medicine and was its editor up to the time of his death.

When, in the early 1960s, the proposed medical school in the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (later the University of Rhodesia) was incorporated into the University of Birmingham, England, as an affiliated college, Michael Gelfand was appointed professor of African medicine. His was the main driving force in the development of the medical school and its outstanding success was due more to him than to anyone else. He was an extremely able teacher and his ward rounds were fascinating, emphasizing the Oslerian dictum: ‘...as is our pathology so is our practice.’

As a man Mike was kind and gentle; with love for all and malice for none. He played no part in politics, and his wide popularity as a physician and man was shown by the fact that he was almost automatically the physician of governors, prime ministers and leading citizens. This eminence in no way impaired his devotion to the ordinary sick African. Prime Minister Robert Mugabe gave an address at his funeral. Although a devout member of the synagogue he was completely ecumenical - evidenced by the award to him of the Roman Catholic knighthood of St Sylvester, and the Order of Distinguished Auxiliary Service of the Salvation Army.

In 1937 he married Esther Kallenberg, daughter of a company director. They had three daughters, two of whom married doctors. His wife Esther survived him. Over many years together they gave warm hospitality to visitors, particularly to those from Birmingham.

Sir Melville Arnott

[Brit.med.J., 1985.291,1057; Lancet, 1985,2,458,512,568; S.Afr.med.J., 1985,68,432; Central Afr.J.Med, 1978,24,5-11]

(Volume VIII, page 179)

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