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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”


Henry E. Sigerist: Medical Historian and Social Visionary

January 2003, Vol 93, No. 1 | American Journal of Public Health 60
© 2003

Theodore M. Brown and Elizabeth Fee

Theodore M. Brown is with the Departments of History and of Community and Preventive Medicine at the University of Rochester, NY. Elizabeth Fee is with the History of Medicine Division, National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Md.

Correspondence: Requests for reprints should be sent to Theodore M. Brown, PhD, Department of History, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY 14627 (e-mail:

FOR CLOSE TO 3 DECADES in the first half of the 20th century, Henry E. Sigerist was widely admired as the world’s leading historian of medicine. Born in Paris of Swiss parents, young Henry grew up in Paris and Zurich; he then studied philology at the University of Zurich and oriental languages at University College and Kings College, London. He returned to Zurich to complete a medical degree and served as a medical officer in the Swiss army.

Having decided that he wished to study the history of medicine, and having the financial means to live as an independent scholar, Sigerist went to Leipzig, Germany, to study under Karl Sudhoff, director of the University of Leipzig’s pioneering Institute of the History of Medicine. Sigerist taught the history of medicine at the University of Zurich until 1925, when, at the precocious age of 34, he succeeded Sudhoff as director of the Leipzig Institute. In 1932, Sigerist moved to the United States to succeed William Henry Welch as director of the Johns Hopkins University Institute of the History of Medicine, which had recently been created on the Leipzig model.


Sigerist brought to Johns Hopkins the high standards of German scholarship and transformed the institute into a national center for the history of medicine in the United States. He reorganized the American Association for the History of Medicine and began publishing a major scholarly journal, the Bulletin of the History of Medicine. He also played an important public role. An urbane and eloquent lecturer, he enjoyed celebrity status at medical society meetings, before civic organizations and women’s clubs, in colleges and universities, and at intellectual forums and student conventions.

Sigerist was a prolific writer. His first books published in English, The Great Doctors and his admiring account of American Medicine, were received with general enthusiasm. But Sigerist’s political views were being honed by his observations of the American capitalist system in the throes of economic crisis, his anguished awareness of the rise of German fascism, and his optimistic belief in the future of socialism. His 1937 book, Socialized Medicine in the Soviet Union, created a sensation. Sigerist portrayed the radically transformed health care system of the Soviet Union as a model for public health and medical care worldwide, the final stage in a long historical evolution of health care organization. The book was widely read, being both criticized and admired.

Sigerist now emerged as a major spokesman for "compulsory health insurance" and was much sought after as a lecturer, popular author, and radio commentator. He published articles in mass circulation magazines and left-leaning journals. When Time magazine published his portrait on its cover in January 1939, it described him as both the world’s greatest medical historian and the nation’s most widely respected authority on compulsory health insurance and health policy.

But in the 1940s, Sigerist’s welcome in America began to turn sour. He was attacked by the American Medical Association, criticized by Hopkins medical alumni, and declared unfit for government service. Tired and under severe strain, he struggled to continue writing his long-promised and recently begun multivolume History of Medicine. In 1947, with continuing financial support from the Rockefeller Foundation, he left the United States and retired to Switzerland, where he died in 1957.

As Sigerist was preparing to leave the United States, Alan Gregg of the Rockefeller Foundation eloquently described his contribution at a dinner held in his honor:


Beyond and above anyone else Henry Sigerist made us aware of the fact that medicine is the study and application of biology in a matrix that is at once historical, social, political, economic, and cultural. . . . Sir Oliver Lodge once remarked that the last thing in the world that a deep sea fish could discover would be salt water. Henry Sigerist removed us, with a historian’s landing net, from a circumambient present into the atmosphere of the past and thus discovered to us the milieu in which we were swimming, floating, and betimes stagnating.

Accepted for publication August 22, 2002.


1. Fee E, Brown TM. The renaissance of a reputation. In: Fee E, Brown TM, eds. Making Medical History: The Life and Times of Henry E. Sigerist. Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins University Press; 1997:1–11.

2. Sigerist HE. The Great Doctors: A Biographical History of Medicine. New York, NY: W. W. Norton; 1933.

3. Sigerist HE. American Medicine. New York, NY: W. W. Norton; 1934.

4. Sigerist HE. Socialized Medicine in the Soviet Union. New York, NY: W. W. Norton; 1937.

5. History in a tea wagon. Time.January 30, 1939:51–53.

6. Sigerist HE. Primitive and Archaic Medicine. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 1951. A History of Medicine; vol 1.

7. Sigerist HE. Early Greek, Hindu, and Persian Medicine. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 1961. A History of Medicine; vol 2.

8. Gregg A. Henry E. Sigerist: his impact on American medicine. Bull Hist Med.1948;22:32.