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Bulletin of the History of Medicine 77.1 (2003) 1-11

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Temkin's Times and Ours:
An Appreciation of Owsei Temkin

Gert H. Brieger

We are gathered here today to celebrate a Temkin century—and what a century it was! It began in Russia in 1902 and continued in Leipzig from 1905 until 1932; and then for seventy years the Temkins lived here in Baltimore, where Owsei Temkin became one of Johns Hopkins University's most distinguished scholars. For me personally, as for many of you, he was not merely an outstanding teacher and scholar, but a wise colleague and very kind friend. More could not be asked of any man. Although he is no longer here, his work and his influence on us all live on.

Many people have told me that when you walked in Temkin's shadow or sat at his feet you were quite aware that you were in the presence of a great man—yet he would have been the last to claim that this was true. So great, yet so modest—and he had little to be modest about. Professor Jean Starobinski of the University of Geneva said it perfectly in his long review of the book about Galen in the New York Review of Books in 1975: "we find the simplicity and modesty of tone which is the prerogative of those who are completely in command of their subject." 1 [End Page 1]

All the other speakers today have their own stories to tell, their own comments about the Temkin scholarly works that began in Leipzig in the mid-1920s and have ended with this issue of the Bulletin, which contains an article about a late Alexandrian physician, written with his daughter Judith Temkin Irvine and sent to the Bulletin shortly before his death in July. I will therefore try to limit my recollections in order to say more about Temkin's historiography and his concerns about our field. This was a task he undertook when his teacher, Henry Sigerist, died in 1957, so I will attempt to do somewhat the same for mine.

Before I start to do that, let me ask you to close your eyes for a moment, and to imagine the following: Imagine that you were a young German student, deeply interested in philosophy, but because you lacked German citizenship and because of your Jewish parents, you knew that a career in academic philosophy was not possible. Because of an equal fascination with and interest in physiology you chose to study medicine, with its more practical possibility of earning a living. Now, just four years after finishing your internship, you are thirty years old and you have barely begun in a career that you hope will combine many of your interests: the history of medicine. But you have only a minimum of formal graduate education, although you have published a few well-received papers about ancient medicine.

Now continue to imagine yourself wishing to get married, but without much realistic prospect of job security, when your mentor tells you he is leaving Leipzig to go to a newly established institute of medical history in the United States. He offers to take you with him, but that would mean that you must then teach and write in English. Imagine too, that although you can easily read English, you speak little, and, of course, you have had no experience writing or thinking in English. You are extremely fortunate, however, because your fiancée is English and promises to be a great help in your linguistic transition. But now imagine something that in our world today is almost unimaginable: you must do your scholarly work not only in a new language, but in a world with no Xerox, no scanners, no WordPerfect, no Yahoo, and no Google.

If you can imagine such a scenario, you will understand Owsei and Lilian Temkin's arrival here in Baltimore in the late summer of 1932, seventy years ago. It was one of the worst years of the depression, but for...


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