Johns Hopkins Magazine -- April 2000
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APRIL 2000


Wise counselor or Communist sympathizer? Public opinion about Henry Sigerist changed as quickly as the political milieu.
APRIL 2000
Pioneers of Advocacy

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An Early Apostle of
Socialized Medicine

By Barbara J. Kiviat '01

Like the men throughout history whom he studied, Henry E. Sigerist was a medical man intimately connected with his times.

When the Swiss national came to Hopkins in 1932 to be director of the Institute of the History of Medicine, the field was still a fledgling one, the institute the only one of its kind in the U.S. By the time Sigerist returned to Switzerland in 1947, he had shown 15 years' worth of medical students the importance of putting medicine in its historical context, taught the first history of medicine class on the Homewood campus, and counseled a nation in the midst of depression and healthcare crisis.

Sigerist began his own university studies in Oriental philology but found his professors' insistence on specialization unsettling, and so switched to studying medicine. After serving two years as a physician in the Swiss army, he took up the study of the history of science at the University of Leipzig. At the age of 34, he assumed the directorship of that university's pioneering Institute of the History of Medicine, where he remained until he came to Hopkins.

When Sigerist arrived in Baltimore, the United States was in the depths of the Great Depression. Franklin D. Roosevelt was president, and national healthcare coverage was one of many programs being discussed and developed to ease the economic and social problems of the country.

Sigerist had spent years conducting comparative studies of ancient and modern medical cultures, and eventually concluded that medicine must undergo an evolutionary process that ends--by necessity--in socialized medicine. As a society became more complex, contended Sigerist, the medical care of its citizens could not successfully be left up to the individual.

As an advocate for nationalized medicine, Sigerist took the medical system in the Soviet Union as an example. He traveled there many times, and after close study of the country's healthcare system, published Socialized Medicine in the Soviet Union in 1937.

Here in the U.S., Sigerist's views and respected stature as a historian of medicine drew him into the national debate over healthcare, and soon he became a public figure and spokesperson for compulsory healthcare insurance. He appeared on the cover of Time on January 30, 1939; the accompanying article described him as "the world's greatest medical historian." "In the early 1930s he became known to U.S. physicians as an articulate apostle of socialized medicine," wrote Time. "No man's arguments are read by either side of the socialized medicine controversy with greater respect."

Sigerist was at the height of his popularity. Putting his scholarly research on hold, he traveled extensively to speak in favor of compulsory health insurance and wrote articles for the New York Daily News and Atlantic Monthly.

Sigerist's left-wing stance and fondness for the Soviet Union were never unanimously embraced by policy-makers or members of the American Medical Association, but throughout the 1930s, he was nevertheless a favorite lecturer and dinner guest of liberal thinkers.

That began to change in 1939 with the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact, and growing American disfavor of the Soviet Union. With war in Europe, public attention quickly faded from the issue of comprehensive health legislation, and public opinion backlashed against Sigerist. After a haphazard remark that seemed to justify the U.S.S.R.'s invasion of Finland, Sigerist was assailed in newspaper editorials. University administrators received irate letters from alumni, showing concern about a man of Sigerist's opinions holding such a prominent position at Hopkins.

Sigerist quickly retreated from the public spotlight and resumed his scholarly pursuits, publishing books in 1941 and 1943. But he could not remain completely severed from the people who had come to count on him as a valuable ally.

In February 1944, Sigerist met to advise U.S. Senators Wagner, Murray, and Dingell, who had introduced a bill proposing a national system of health insurance. In April, Sigerist received a letter from the Civil Service Commission telling him that he was no longer eligible for government service. He had displayed too much interest in the political and economic theories of Communism, the letter said, and his service was no longer needed.

Rejected and disillusioned, Sigerist plowed ahead with a successful career as an international consultant. He sat on a committee charged with long-term medical and public health planning for India. And he headed a commission in Canada that laid the groundwork for that nation's socialized healthcare system.

Sigerist returned to Switzerland in 1947 to work on a projected eight-volume History of Medicine. He received positive reviews for volume 1, published in 1951, as well as the first William Henry Welch Medal for outstanding scholarly achievement from the American Association for the History of Medicine.

Sigerist died in 1957, but not before bringing the history of medicine to the forefront of the field of medicine and the public consciousness.