Burgess, Renate (1910–1988)

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Burgess, Renate (1910–1988)

German-born British art and medical historian. Born Renate Ruth Adelheid Bergius in Hanover, Germany, on August 2, 1910; died in London on August 15, 1988; daughter of Friedrich Bergius and Margarethe (Sachs) Bergius; educated in Berlin and Munich; received Ph.D. in art history, University of Munich, 1935; married Hans Burgess, 1950s.

Immigrated to Great Britain (1938); worked as a domestic, factory worker and office clerk (1938–44); worked as a nurse and midwife (1944–51); worked at General Nursing Council (1952–62); curator of paintings, prints and photographs at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine (1964–80).

Renate Burgess was born in Hanover, Germany, on August 2, 1910, to Dr. Friedrich Bergius (1884–1949), a chemist whose innovations in the field of coal hydrogenation earned him a Nobel Prize in 1931, and Margarethe Sachs Bergius , who came from a cultured Jewish family. As a student in Berlin and Munich, Renate enrolled in art history, archaeology and French philology. She studied under the noted art historian Wilhelm Pinder and earned her degree in art history at the University of Munich in 1935. That year, the Nuremberg Laws stripped Renate of her German citizenship because of her part-Jewish ancestry. Unable to find a teaching post, she worked for the next 18 months in a Munich art gallery. Then, exercising considerable courage, she began teaching and doing social work for the Confessing Church (Bekennende Kirche), the branch of the Lutheran Church that rejected both Nazi racism and totalitarian attempts to create a unified state church.

Although she did not feel herself to be immediately threatened by Nazism, in 1938 Renate left Germany for England. Like the overwhelming majority of refugees from Nazi Germany, she arrived virtually penniless (having been allowed to leave with only ten Marks). The next years were difficult as she had to work at a series of jobs unrelated to art history—including domestic work, factory work, and routine secretarial tasks (for a while she worked for the Master of Downing College at Cambridge University)—but she remained undiscouraged. Theology was among her interests during these years, and she trained as a deaconess in the Church of England. Deciding against a life in the church, she took training in nursing and midwifery, working in several public-health hospitals as a nurse and midwife from 1944 to 1951. In the 1950s, she married Hans Burgess, a fellow refugee whose name was originally Juliusburger; the marriage would later end in divorce. From 1952 to 1962, Renate was a clerical officer and translator at the General Nursing Council.

Throughout these years, she retained a strong interest in art and art history, visiting London's galleries and museums. She also kept active as an art researcher, thanks to her mother's second husband, Dr. Werner Leibbrand, who occasionally called on her to carry out research projects at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, one of London's many superb research centers. In 1963, when Burgess applied for a typing job at the Wellcome Institute, her interviewer realized that she was qualified for the post of curator of the institute's vast collection of paintings, prints and photographs. Hired for the curatorial job, she began work on September 1, 1964.

At the age of 54, Renate Burgess began what would become a distinguished career in the area of medical bibliography and iconography. Her single greatest achievement during her career at the Wellcome Institute was the cataloguing of over 12,000 portraits and prints of physicians and other medical personages that had been collected by Sir Henry Wellcome between 1900 and 1936. With much of her time at the Wellcome Institute given to other researchers working there, she often spent evenings at the library of the British Museum to complete her research for the vast catalogue. When the catalogue, Portraits of Doctors and Scientists in the Wellcome Institute, was finally published in 1973, Burgess received accolades from reviewers and scholars as the world's leading expert on medical portraiture.

Burgess identified a number of notable paintings whose painters had hitherto remained unknown. Two of the most important were Adam Elsheimer's St. Elizabeth Visiting a Hospital, a canvas dating to 1598, and Joseph Wright of Derby's 1753 portrait of his brother, the surgeon Richard Wright. Burgess organized a number of exhibitions at the Wellcome Institute, including Medicine in 1815, The History of Pharmacy, Chinese Medicine, and The Child in History. Perhaps the most popular of her shows was the 1970 exhibition, Dickens and Medicine, which received the highest praise from both medical and literary experts. Although she officially retired from her post in 1980, Burgess continued working at the Wellcome Institute on an emeritus basis. She died in London on August 15, 1988.


Bergius, Renate. Französische und belgische Konsol-und Zwickelplastik im 14. und 15. Jahrhundert. Würzburg: Konrad Triltsch Verlag, 1936.

"Dr. Renate Burgess," in The Times [London]. August 26, 1988, p. 14.

Schupbach, W. "Renate R.A. Burgess (1910–1988)," in Medical History. Vol. 33, no. 1. January 1989, pp. 120–123.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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