Lives of the fellows

Henry Ernest Sigerist

b.7 April 1891 d.11 March 1957
MD Zürich(1927) LLD Queen’s(1941) Hon MD Madrid(1935) Hon DLitt Wits(1939) Hon DSc Lond(1953) *FRCP(1954)

Henry Ernest Sigerist was born in Paris, the son of Ernst Heinrich Sigerist, a Swiss company director, and of his wife, Emma, daughter of Johannes Wiskemann, goldsmith. He was educated at the Literar-Gymnasium and the University of Zürich, where he took the degree of M.D. He also studied medicine at Munich University, and after qualification served for two years as first lieutenant in the Swiss Army Medical Corps. Facile at languages, before he was fifteen he knew Latin, Greek and Arabic, and later studied Sanskrit and Chinese. At the age of twenty he was a student of philology for some time at the School of Oriental Studies, London. From 1921 to 1924 he was privat-dozent and professor at Zürich University, and worked as a pharmacologist.

Medical history as an integral part of the study of medicine attracted Sigerist; he discovered in this field a career in which he could combine all his interests, medical, philological, historical and sociological. He became a medical historian against the advice of his teachers who desired him to specialise in some branch of clinical medicine. In 1924 he began his life-work by assisting Karl Sudhoff at Leipzig University, and in the following year succeeded Sudhoff as professor and director of the Institute of the History of Medicine.

In 1926 William H. Welch resigned his chair of pathology and was appointed to the new chair of the history of medicine at Johns Hopkins University, which had been established for him. From May 1927 he spent over a year travelling in Europe to buy rare books on medical history for the William H. Welch Library, associated with his chair, to meet medical historians and to visit libraries and universities. In the course of his travels he met Sigerist at Leipzig. A year later Welch decided to retire. There was some delay in finding a successor. Harvey Cushing, W. W. Francis, Osier librarian at McGill University, and Charles Singer were approached in turn, but declined. In 1932 the offer came to Sigerist, who had already impressed Welch and his colleagues as a visiting lecturer. His acceptance of the chair involved a change of language as well as a change of residence in another country. At Leipzig he had shifted from French to German; now at Baltimore he had to adopt English. To an expert linguist like Sigerist this was not difficult. Incidentally, he had acquired also Italian and Spanish and by 1936 could speak Russian.

Under Sigerist the Institute of the History of Medicine became a vital part of the Johns Hopkins University and the American nation. He extended its scope beyond pure medical history, including consideration of, and investigation into cultural activities of past, present and future importance. The learning and prestige of Sigerist attracted research students from all parts of the United States and elsewhere to Johns Hopkins. During Sigerist's years at Baltimore he became a member of the Saskatchewan Health Services Survey Commission. He also visited Russia twice, South Africa and India. To India he went as a member of a group of experts to give evidence before the Health Survey and Development Committee, which was planning the future health services of that country. He edited and wrote extensively in the Bulletin of the Institute of the History of Medicine.

Sigerist's health was not good. In the essay, ‘Living under the shadow’ (Atlant. Mon., 1952, 189, 25-30), he recorded his physical handicaps of which hypertension and associated cardiovascular disease were the most serious. In 1947 he resigned his chair at Johns Hopkins and retired to Pura, a village near Lugano in his native Switzerland, partly through ill health, but mainly to write in undisturbed tranquillity his projected eight volume history of medicine. Of these he completed two (1951-61). In them he has bequeathed much fresh wisdom and learning to mankind; only Sigerist with his profound knowledge of historical medicine and of languages both ancient and modern could have written them. He married Emma Mina, the daughter of Robert Escher, a company director, in 1916; they had two daughters.

Richard R Trail

* He was elected under the special bye-law which provides for the election to the fellowship of "Persons holding a medical qualification, but not Members of the College, who have distinguished themselves in the practice of medicine, or in the pursuit of Medical or General Science or Literature..."

[Brit.med.J., 1957, 1, 767-8 (p); Bull Hist. Med., 1948, 22, 1-115, Henry E. Sigerist valedictory number (p); 1957, 31, 295-308; Dtsch. med. Wschr., 1957, 82, 856-7 (p); Isis, 1958, 49, 170-71; Lancet, 1957, 1, 692-3 (p); Med. Hist., 1957,1, 285-9; Science, 1957, 126, 551-2; Times, 20, 29 Mar. 1957; G. Miller. A Bibliography of the writings of Henry E. Sigerist; ed. by G. Miller. Montreal, 1966 (p); H. E. Sigerist. Autobiographical writings; selected and trans. by N. S. Beeson. Montreal, 1966 (p).]

(Volume V, page 376)

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