Lives of the fellows

Alexander Jeremiah Orenstein

b.26 September 1879 d.6 July 1972
CB CMG CBE MD DSc Phila(1905) MRCS LRCP(1916) LLD Wits(1931) MD Jefferson(1920) MRCP(1938) FRCP(1946) Hon FRSM Hon FRSTMH

Alexander Orenstein received his medical education at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. After qualifying in 1905, he joined the American Armed Forces. He was posted to the Panama Canal Zone where he served under General Gorgas in his campaign to rid the region of the diseases which had defeated previous attempts to construct the canal. This campaign was successful and the canal was completed. Both malaria and yellow fever were controlled and the health standards of the population were as good as those obtaining at that time in the United States of America.

General Gorgas visited South Africa in 1913-14 to advise on the health of the mine labourers in the gold mines of the Witwatersrand. He submitted a detailed report with a series of recommendations to improve conditions. One of these recommendations was that Dr. A.J. Orenstein, one of his lieutenants in the Panama Canal Zone, should be invited to spend one year on the Witwatersrand to help in the implementation of his recommendations. Orenstein arrived early in 1914 and stayed in South Africa not for one year, but for the rest of his life. During this long time, he took a leading role in the affairs of the medical profession and in the country of his adoption. He was appointed the Chief Medical Officer of the Rand Mines and reorganized the Mines Medical Services which became and remain a model of efficiency.

During World War I, he was commissioned as a Captain in the SA Medical Corps and then promoted Major and Officer Commanding No. 1 Convalescent Camp at Robert Heights. In November, 1917, he was appointed Assistant Director of Medical Services with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, and in November 1918 he was promoted to Colonel and appointed Director of Medical Services. He was mentioned in despatches and created a Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George. He was released from military service in June, 1919.

In 1918, he directed the public health measures introduced during the pandemic of influenza and in its aftermath. He was one of those mainly responsible for the Union Health Department, now the State Health Department. He served on many of its advisory committees for many years.

In 1924, he was created a Chevalier of the Order of the Crown of Belgium for services to the Belgian Congo.

He took an active part in the affairs of the South African Medical Association and was President of its Federal Council, and in 1926 was awarded its gold medal for distinguished services in the field of medicine.

He was keenly interested in health education and was the first lecturer in tropical medicine appointed by the University of Witwatersrand.

During World War II, he was appointed Director-General of Medical Services in November 1939 and left for East Africa in May 1940 and was promoted Brigadier in October. He saw service in East Africa, the Middle East and in the United Kingdom. He was mentioned in despatches and created a Commander of the Order of the British Empire and then a Companion of the Order of the Bath. He was released from military service in August 1945 with the rank of Major-General.

After the war, he returned to civilian life and then was appointed the first Director of the Pneumoconiosis Research Unit. After relinquishing the appointment, he returned to his post as Consultant to Rand Mines, a post he held until he died.

He had a dominating personality and his views were listened to with respect. He helped formulate policy in many fields of medicine in Southern Africa particularly in public health, tropical medicine, medical research and in two world wars. His great contributions to welfare and health will long be remembered by the people of Southern Africa where he made his home.

In 1916 he married Kate Bradbury and they had one daughter.

JH Gear

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(Volume VI, page 362)

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