Henry E. Sigerist

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Henry E. Sigerist


Swiss Physician and Medical Historian

Henry Sigerist was a medical man who focused on illuminating the history and development of medicine and its effect on patients, practitioners, and society. He was the first medical historian to emphasize the impact of culture and conditions on medicine and the importance of medicine in modern society. He was one of the first respected medical scholars to take up the field of the history of science, a brand-new discipline in the early twentieth century.

Born in Switzerland in 1891, Henry E. Sigerist graduated from local schools unsure of his intended profession. In 1910 at the University of Zurich, he took courses in medicine, history, and art and eventually decided to combine them. He learned about oriental philology, the study of historic and comparative language, and transferred to University College London for a year. He spent 1914 at the University of Munich, then returned to Zurich to earn a degree in medicine. He graduated in 1917 at the height of World War I. Although Switzerland was neutral in the war, Henry spent two years in the Swiss Army, as all Swiss citizens did. As a medical student, he served in the Medical Corps, after which he returned to his graduate medical studies. He was 27 when the armistice ending the war was signed in 1918.

He was interested in social problems and their affect on people and on medicine. He was also interested in the history of medicine, but this was considered just a "delightful hobby" and not a profession. Still, he persisted. In 1919 at the University of Leipzig in Germany, he studied medicine during the Middle Ages. By 1925 he was teaching medical history there and became the director of the Institute of the History of Medicine. This institute became the European focus of medical studies in historical context. His first book, of which he was an editor, was published in 1927.

After a disagreement with the administration over the expansion of his institute, he took a leave of absence and spent the winter of 1931-32 as a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University. He gave a number of lectures and in 1940 toured the United States. He spent the years of World War II in the U.S. teaching at Johns Hopkins and never went back to Germany. He counted himself lucky to have gotten out before Adolf Hitler came to power. He toured South Africa and India with a commission surveying medical conditions in those places. In his books and articles for professional journals and magazines, he concentrated on history, medicine, and sociology, areas seldom previously combined.

He was highly effective as a teacher and respected as a writer and scholar of medical history. He thought the structure of medicine should be reorganized to serve the needs of all people equally. He influenced students whose medical school curricula had not previously included history or sociology and helped to shape the philosophy of many future doctors.

He returned to Switzerland after the war in 1947 and continued to write on medicine and society. In 1954 he had a stroke and was recovering when a second stroke hit him in 1957 from which he did not recover. He died at the age of 66. He is remembered today for his monumental History of Medicine and for works like Medicine and Human Welfare, The Sociology of Medicine, and Socialized Medicine in the Soviet Union. He was a prolific writer and a pioneer in combining humanistic ideas with science in general and medicine in particular.


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Henry E. Sigerist

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