Lives of the fellows

Charles Joseph Singer

b.2 November 1876 d.10 June 1960
BA Oxon(1900) MB ChB Oxon(1905) DM Oxon(1911) DLitt Oxon(1922) Hon DSc Oxon(1936) MRCS LRCP(1903) MRCP(1909) FSA(1913) FRCP(1917)

Charles Joseph Singer, son of the Rev. Simeon Singer, a Hebrew scholar of distinction, and his wife, née Charlotte Pyke, was born in London. He was educated at the City of London School, and after entering on the study of science at University College, London, in 1896 became a scholar of Magdalen College, Oxford, of which he was afterwards an honorary fellow. At Oxford he read zoology, obtaining a second class in the final honour school in 1900. He often said that for choice he would have been a zoologist. His knowledge of the sciences stood him in good stead for, in his A Short history of biology (1931) and other works, he returned to it with a ‘recollected love’.

But medicine was Singer’s aim, and he went on to St. Mary’s Hospital for his clinical training. In 1903 he qualified and straightway went as medical officer on an expedition under Sir John Harrington for the delimitation of the Abyssinian frontier with the Sudan. Collecting biological specimens and studying medical cases, he was away for nearly a year. On his return he held resident posts at St. Mary’s and other hospitals; he also gained further experience in tropical diseases in a post at the Government General Hospital at Singapore.

In 1920 he began consulting practice and was appointed physician to the Dreadnought Hospital for Seamen. He was also medical registrar to the Cancer Hospital, Brompton, and there made a study (with S. B. Schryver) of the chemical composition of the gastric juice in carcinoma and other diseases (Quart. J. Med., 1912-13, 6, 71-81, 320-50). In 1910 he married Dorothea Waley, daughter of Nathaniel L. Cohen. It was an ideal union of hearts and minds.

In addition to practising as hospital physician, as consultant, and doing medical research, Singer had written several papers since 1911 on medical history and with his wife had published The Development of the doctrine of contagium vivum, 1500-1750 (1913). At the age of thirty-eight, in the spring of 1914, Singer relinquished consulting medicine, and on Osier’s invitation came to Oxford to enter on his life-work as a medical historian. He and his wife, largely at their own expense, established a history of science room in the Radcliffe Camera for research workers.

When the First World War came, Singer took a commission in the R.A.M.C. He was first posted to Malta. While there he began some anthropological and archaeological work with Sir Themistocles Zammit, which was completed during a later stay. In January 1916 he was transferred to Salonika and pursued his studies in Byzantine and modern Greek. Such was his zeal and enthusiasm that Osier termed him ‘that Socratic gadfly’. In the meantime Mrs Singer, who was engaged on her great catalogue of alchemical manuscripts, kept the flag of historical science flying at Oxford. With her help through correspondence Singer was able to publish the first volume of his Studies in the history and method of science (1917).

After the war Singer returned to Oxford as lecturer in the history of the biological sciences. It was hoped to obtain an Oxford professorial chair for him, but Osier’s death in 1919 prevented this coming to fruition, and in 1920 he was appointed lecturer on the history of medicine at University College, London. In 1930 the University of London conferred on him the title of honorary professor in this subject. On his retirement he became professor emeritus in 1942.

Singer knew many languages. He could read Greek (ancient and modern), Hebrew, Latin, Arabic, Anglo-Saxon, French, German, Dutch, Italian, and Spanish. This acquaintance with ancient and modern tongues was of great assistance to him in his work.

His leading position in science and medicine was widely recognised. He was president of the Third International Congress of the History of Medicine (1922) and of the Second International Congress of the History of Science and Technology (1931). He gave the Fitz-Partick lectures to the College, ‘The Evolution of anatomy,’ in 1923-4, and the Lloyd-Roberts lecture in 1954. He was Noguchi lecturer at Johns Hopkins University and Mary Scott Newbold lecturer at Philadelphia in 1930. During 1931-2 he was visiting professor at the University of California.

He was a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, president of the history of medicine section of the Royal Society of Medicine, and a fellow of University College, London. He was president of the British Society for the History of Science from 1946 to 1948, and of the International Society for the History of Science from 1946 to 1950. He held the Oxford doctorates in the three faculties of medicine, letters and science, the D.Sc, being an honorary degree. In 1956 he was awarded the Osier medal of Oxford University, and shortly afterwards received the George Sarton medal of the American Society for the History of Science.

A source of great gratification to Singer was the presentation to him of his Festschrift by Sir Zachary Cope at a luncheon held at Fowey on 19 December 1953. The ninety essays range over a very wide field in the history of medicine, science, and learning. The contributors were leading historians in Great Britain, the United States of America and the European continent. Their tributes show the influence of Singer’s teaching, and range from the dawn of history to the nineteenth century and after.

Charles Singer founded a school of historical research in medicine and science, illuminated it with scholarship, thought and wisdom, and gave forth its lessons with eloquence and literary distinction. He had a delightful personality. Kind and generous, he scintillated with ideas for the improvement of mankind and, as his work before and during the Second World War showed, was a friend to the oppressed. He helped to found the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning, and he and his wife rescued and succoured many victims of Nazi tyranny. He was ever ready to pour out the stores of his knowledge to help the budding historian. His conversation was adorned with wit and humour, and he and Mrs Singer were delighted to entertain their friends—and of those there were many—at Kilmarth or in London.

Richard R Trail

[Brit.med.J., 1960, 1, 1897-9 (p), 1963, 1968; 1960, 2, 154, 872; Bull Hist. Med., 1960, 34, 471-3; Isis., 1960, 51, 558-60; Lancet, 1960, 1, 1355; Med. Hist., 1960, 4, 353-8; Nature (Lond.), 1960, 187, 827-8; Science, 1960, 132, 1296-7; Times, 13 (p), 18, 24 June 1960; E. A. Underwood. Science, medicine and history: essays... in honour of Charles Singer; ed. by E. A. Underwood. London, 1953. 2 vols(p). Vol. 1, biographical note, by E. A. U., v-ix; vol. 2, bibliography, by E. A. U., 555-81.]

(Volume V, page 379)

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