Renate Wilson

A social and medical historian and German film actress, she studied health services and worked on international projects.

December 15, 2008|By Laura Smitherman | Laura Smitherman,laura.smitherman@baltsun.com

Renate Wilson, a social and medical historian and former German film actress who immigrated to the United States after World War II, died of cancer Dec. 7 at Gilchrist Hospice Care. She was 78.

Dr. Wilson, a longtime adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, was well-known for her research on the history of medicine and cross-cultural studies of health services. She spoke English, German and French, and she often made appearances at international conferences, only recently canceling an engagement in Vienna, Austria, because of illness.

"We're getting e-mails from around the world from people saying they worked with her and that she was a tremendous force of nature," said Peter Wilson, her son and a Baltimore architect. "She was a gentle soul and fiercely intellectual."

Born Renate Fischer in Berlin, her Jewish family survived World War II partly through her father's association with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Known as one of the best in Europe, the orchestra became a part of Adolf Hitler's propaganda machine, but conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler was able to protect Jewish members.

That let Ernst Fischer, Renate's father and the first clarinetist, to sequester her and her sister, Inge, in Silesia, then a rural province of Germany.

After the war, Renate Fischer graduated from Humboldt University and worked as an actress. In her most well-known role, she played the female lead in Der Untertan, a film based on the novel by Heinrich Mann and a satirical look at nationalism in Germany.

Deciding to pursue "more intellectual endeavors," she went to work for the U.S. Embassy in Berlin as a translator, Mr. Wilson said.

Dr. Wilson's first husband, to whom she was wed seven months, died of leukemia.

When she endeavored to learn French, she met her second husband in tutor Max William Wilson, a Haitian studying philosophy in Berlin. They were married in 1957 and immigrated to the United States almost a decade later.

As she began her career at Johns Hopkins, Dr. Wilson worked with renowned health services researcher Dr. Kerr White and co-edited a volume that compared health systems around the world. She was a Fulbright Fellow and wrote Pious Traders in Medicine: A German Pharmaceutical Network in Eighteenth-Century North America, a book about the role of German immigrants in the development of medicine and pharmaceuticals in the U.S. She received the Thyssen fellowship for historical studies of cross-cultural medical care this year.

Dr. Wilson received her doctorate in history from the University of Maryland, College Park in 1988. Her husband, who worked at Morgan State University and as chairman of the philosophy department at Howard University, died that year.

"I always remember going into their home, and they would be carrying on lively conversations and switching from one language to another in a way that was fascinating," said Judith D. Kasper, a professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. "They were both large personalities."

"Renate was always just a great friend to talk to," Dr. Kasper added. "She had very, very strong opinions about almost everything."

Friends and family recalled Dr. Wilson's gourmet cooking, especially her stollen, a German Christmas cake.

A memorial service will be held at 6 p.m. Sunday at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 811 Cathedral St., with a reception to follow.

Dr. Wilson, who lived part of the year in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, is also survived by another son, J.P. Wilson of Princeton, N.J.

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