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Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 58.3 (2003) 362-366

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Lester Snow King (1908–2002)

Charles G. Roland

Lester Snow King (1908-2002)

Lester Snow King died 6 October 2002. His life encompassed excellence in pathology, medical journalism, and medical history.

King’s parents were Myron L. King, M.D., and Sophie (Snow) King. His father was a general practitioner in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and that is where Lester was born, 18 April 1908, and where he was raised. A graduate of Harvard Medical School in 1932, King had met a Johns Hopkins medical student, Marjorie Meehan, the year before. They were married in December 1931 and had two children, Alfred (born 1932) and Frances (born 1935). 1

After graduation, King received a 2-year fellowship in anatomy at Harvard, followed by a year in Spain studying silver-staining techniques with one of the world’s authorities on neurological anatomy, Pío del Río-Hortega. He and Marjorie left Madrid in March 1936, just before the bloody Spanish Civil War began. Then he did research into the demyelinating diseases at the National Hospital, Queen Square, London.

Back in the U.S., a job was required. Fortuitously, he was offered a 3-year appointment to the Rockefeller Institute, in the branch devoted to animal and plant pathology, in Princeton, New Jersey. There, he had an epiphany of sorts: he discovered that he was not cut out for the pure research life; after 2 years, it was plain he would not obtain tenure. Happily, a contact resulted in a position as pathologist at a new state hospital connected with Yale Medical School. By then, as he stated, “I realized that despite my attitudes in medical school [disliking pathology], I was destined to earn my living as a pathologist.” [End Page 362]

During World War II, the army assigned King to be pathologist to the William Beaumont General Hospital in El Paso, Texas. He remained in Texas throughout the war. Demobilization brought King to Chicago, where he practiced pathology, as he had predicted he would, competently but without passion. Increasingly, it was medical history that provided challenge and satisfaction in his professional life. He published several papers and then, in 1958, his first book, The Medical World of the Eighteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), appeared. The critical acceptance of this volume solidified King’s dedication to his avocation. (Although Lester once stated in his customarily forceful way that no historian had more than three good books in him, he proceeded to publish nine and edited two more.) King’s breadth of interests and commitment to excellence were displayed many times in his life; as late as 1999, he began creating [End Page 363] collages as a hobby and became sufficiently accomplished to have a one-man show.

Lester King always termed himself a self-made historian. By this, he meant simply that he had received no advanced degree in that subject. But, in his chosen area of specialization, the Eighteenth Century, his scholarship was widely accepted and, sometimes, seminal. His contributions were recognized in many ways, most notably in his long-term connection with the American Association for the History of Medicine. He was president of the Association in 1974 and 1975; delivered the prestigious Garrison Lecture in 1975; received the 1977 William H. Welch Medal for best book in the history of medicine; and was the first recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award in 1988. In 1964, he received the Boerhaave Medal from the University of Leyden. King was also an active participant in the Chicago Medical Historical Society. He was a member of the Department of History, University of Chicago, through most of the 1970s and 1980s.

King was Senior Editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) from 1963 until 1973 and Contributing Editor for many years after that. In the 1960s, a happy decision by John Talbott, then editor-in-chief of JAMA, made King the book review editor. He enjoyed this addition to his regular editorial duties...


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