Dr. Owsei Temkin: A Legendary Medical Historian

Dr. Owsei Temkin: A Medical Historian Par Excellence

Medical historians study the history of medicine. They also look at medicine, diseases, and health care in the context of cultural and social constructs at that point of time in history. Physicians who choose careers as medical historians are often people with deep interests in the humanities. 

In this article, we bring to you the journey of Dr. Owsei Temkin, a distinguished physician, and medical historian, who is included as one of the founding fathers of the history of medicine (as a formal academic discipline) together with other notable medical historians of his time, including Dr. Henry Siegrist, and Dr. Karl Sudhoff. 

Dr. Owsei Temkin worked at the world's first non-English Institute of History of Medicine at the Leipzig University in Germany as well as at the world's first English-speaking Institute of History of Medicine at the John Hopkins University, Baltimore, United States of America. His works on the history of medicine are popular even today among the learners of medical history worldwide.

Dr. Owsei Temkin
A Potrait of Dr. Owsei Temkin
Image Credit: Yousuf Karsh, The John Hopkins Medical Institutions

Qualifications and Early Life of Dr. Owsei Temkin

Dr. Owsei Temkin was born in 1902 into a Jewish family in Minsk, present-day Belarus, and then Russia. the family, including him, had to move to Leipzig, Germany for safety when he was only 3 years old. However, within a few years, the anti-Jewish sentiment increased in Germany as well. By that time, the young Owsei Temkin had completed his medical education at the University of Leipzig and developed a strong like for the academic subject of medical history. 

Dr. Owsei Temkin had completed his MD under Dr. Siegrist at the Institute for the History of Medicine at the University of Leipzig in 1927. The growing anti-Jewish sentiment and destiny moved him along with Dr. Siegrist to the distant lands of the United States of America where they joined the newly established Institute for the History of Medicine at the John Hopkins University, Baltimore. Dr. William H Welch, the then Director of the John Hopkins University, was the main force behind the recruitment of both Dr. Temkin and Dr. Siegrist at the Institute for the History of Medicine.    

Professional Career of Dr. Owsei Temkin

Dr. Owsei Temkin had a long tenure at the Institute for the History of Medicine, John Hopkins University, which began in 1932 as an associate and later continued as a professor, followed by his appointment as William H. Welch Professor, and finally as the Director of the Institute of the History of Medicine in 1958. Later, He was also appointed as a professor of the history of medicine in the Johns Hopkins Department of Science. He was accorded the status of Emeritus Professor in 1968. All through his tenure at the John Hopkins University, he was loved by medical students for brilliantly exposing them to complex issues of medical humanities, philosophy, and medical history. 

Dr. Owsei Temkin served as the editor of the Bulletin of the History of Medicine for a long duration from 1948 to 1968. He also assumed the Presidency of the American Association for the History of Medicine between 1958 and 1960. In addition, he was elected to the National Academy of Science between 1978 and 1982. He was also elected to the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was also accorded with the Welch Medal and the Sarton Prize for his phenomenal contributions as a medical historian. In addition, he was awarded a rare scholarship by the American Council of Learned Societies.

After 1982, Dr. Owsei Temkin had to limit his professional associations because of his age and illnesses. Nevertheless, he remained very active for another 20 years through his written works till the very last of his long life of 99 years. His last written work was published shortly after his death in 2002.

Seminal Works of Dr. Owsei Temkin

Dr. Owsei Temkin published in every decade between the 1920s and 2000, which is simply unmatchable in not only medical academics but in all domains of knowledge. In this exceptionally long academic career, he examined the history of medicine across several lenses spanning from ancient to the modern history of medicine and from non-clinical to clinical disciplines. 

In a Memoriam, Dr. Charles E. Rosenberg described him as a "humanist and amateur seeker of meaning rather than that of disciplinary status." Dr. Rosenberg and Dr. Vivian Nutton have highlighted that Dr. Owsei Temkin could read and interpret at least twelve written languages, including several classical languages, such as Greek, Latin, Arabic, and Hebrew. As a historian, he made excellent use of his language skills while interpreting historical documents and manuscripts.   

The seminal works of Dr. Owsei Temkin include The Falling Sickness (1945), a treatise on the medical history of epilepsy; Surgery and the Rise of Modern Medical Thought (1951), a commentary on the historical aspects of the development of surgery as a distinct medical specialty; Galenism (1973), a reflection on the evolution of medical philosophy; The Double Face of Janus (1977), an autobiographical account of his early scientific endeavors in medical history; Hippocrates in a World of Pagans & Christians (1991), a historical examination of the amalgamation of the Hippocratic ideas in later societies; On Second Thought (2002), another autobiographical collection of his most interesting papers.

Legacy of Dr. Owsei Temkin

Dr. Owsei Temkin had a robust influence on the professionalization of the field of the history of medicine. His students and his students' students have institutionalized this discipline deep into the academic world of medical history. 

His long stints as the Director of the Institute for the History of Medicine and the Editor of the Bulletin of the History of Medicine had left an unforgettable stamp on the subject of medical history. His excellence in this field and his over a seven-decade-long career as an eminent medical historian have put him into an unparalleled league of experts in medical humanities.   

Selected Quotes from Dr. Owsei Tamkin's Works 

"Modern Physics boastfully or plaintively speaks of the meaningless universe. But there is no meaningless universe in medicine. Human beings are not satisfied with viewing health and disease as matters of mere chance separable from their lives.”
"I was asked to state my field of study. “Medicine and philosophy,” I said. My reply was not acceptable; only one school (Facult├Ąt) could be chosen, and so I declared for medicine. It would satisfy my interest in science, particularly human biology, while eventually enabling me to make a living in a useful manner. . . As an alien, I could not count on becoming a teacher at a Gymnasium or university, and there was no other possibility of supporting myself in philosophy or history, which had also attracted me since boyhood."
"Disease is not simply either the one or the other. Rather it will be thought of as the circumstances require. The circumstances are represented by the patient, the physician, the public health man, the medical scientist, the pharmaceutical industry, society at large, and last but not least the disease itself"
"Health and disease have been subjects of religious and philosophical meditation, and as metaphors they are to be found in politics, science, and literature. . . Man has speculated over the meaning of his disease for himself and for his community. Medicine is not only a science and an art; it is also a mode of looking at man with compassionate objectivity. Why turn elsewhere to contemplate man’s moral nature?"

References and Suggested Reading

About the author

Dr. Naval Asija is a licensed MBBS Physician from India. MBBS is the equivalent of the MD degree offered by international medical schools. He is based in Delhi, India, and works as a medical writer, editor, and consultant. He supports medical researchers as an author's editor, medical communication companies involved in medico-marketing activities, and medical technology companies in improving their products. He can be contacted via his LinkedIn Profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/navalasija/

Journey of a non clinical doctor


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