Henry E. Sigerist: Medical Historian and Social Visionary
2003, Vol 93, No. 1 | American Journal of Public Health 60
Theodore M. Brown and Elizabeth
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.
for reprints should be sent to Theodore M. Brown, PhD,
Department of History, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY
14627 (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org).
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.