Owsei Temkin, 99, historian of medicine at Johns Hopkins

July 22, 2002|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

Dr. Owsei Temkin, a renowned Johns Hopkins historian of medicine and one of the last living links to the university's founding fathers, died Thursday of heart failure at Roland Park Place. He was 99.

Known for his eclectic medical interests and penetrating scholarship, Dr. Temkin published hundreds of essays and a dozen books on subjects ranging from syphilis to the Hippocratic oath.

Although he used a wheelchair, was nearly deaf and was unable to type or write in his last years, Dr. Temkin doggedly continued his scholarly output by dictating to his daughter Judith Temkin Irvine of Ann Arbor, Mich. His last book, On Second Thought and Other Essays On the History of Medicine and Science, was published in January.

Born in Minsk, Russia, Dr. Temkin and his family, who were Jewish, fled to Germany when he was 3 years old, fearing a pogrom. He received his medical degree from the University of Leipzig.

"I had a short-lived vision of becoming a country doctor," he wrote in a 1977 biographical essay, "The Double Face of Janus."

But in the fall of 1925, Dr. Temkin enrolled in a course taught by Henry Sigerist, a Swiss historian of medicine. The class changed his life.

The young medical student soon abandoned plans to practice his craft and embarked on a lifelong career of studying its history. His dissertation, which Mr. Sigerist supervised, was on Hippocrates, the Greek father of medicine.

In 1932, Mr. Sigerist accepted a job as director of Johns Hopkins' 3-year-old Institute of the History of Medicine, the first of its kind in the United States. Mr. Sigerist quickly hired Dr. Temkin as a lecturer. At that time, medical history was taken far less seriously in the United States than it was in Europe. Mr. Sigerist and Dr. Temkin helped change that.

"He helped move this field to a much more sophisticated level," said Dr. Gert H. Brieger of the Department of the History of Science, Medicine & Technology at Johns Hopkins.

Dr. Temkin's office was next to the office of Dr. William Welch, making him one the last men alive to have worked directly with a founder of the university's medical school. "They called him Popsy," Dr. Temkin recalled last year in a university publication, "but not to his face."

In 1958, Dr. Temkin became director of the institute. He also edited the Bulletin of the History of Medicine, one of the country's premier journals on the subject.

Among historians, Dr. Temkin is known for his clear and engaging writing style, achieved with the help of his wife and editor, the former C. Lilian Shelley, a British-born linguist who died in 1992.

His legacy, said Dr. Brieger, includes his strong scholarship on the history of diseases, including The Falling Sickness, a 1947 history of epilepsy from ancient to modern times. Fluent in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, English, German, French, Italian and Russian, Dr. Temkin was able to conduct much of his research in the original language.

He retired from the institute in 1968, but continued to spar good-naturedly with colleagues who dropped by the nursing home to visit.

"I used to joke he was the youngest 99-year-old I ever met," said Harry M. Marks, a Johns Hopkins medical historian. Dr. Temkin, he says, remained intellectually vibrant "basically down to the last minute. We would not be arguing old stuff when I went over there."

Dr. Temkin donated his body to the Maryland Anatomy Board.

No formal services are planned. The university plans to hold a symposium on Dr. Temkin in October, on what would have been his 100th birthday.

In addition to his daughter, he is survived by another daughter, Ann Josephson Temkin of Atlanta.

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