Towering Medical Historian

Brieger transformed the History of Medicine department here.

Published in Hopkins Medicine - Spring/Summer 2021

Gert Brieger, who directed the Department of the History of Medicine from 1984 to 2002, spent most of his professional career immersed in the legacies of great physicians and scientists.

Yet Brieger also experienced history — of a terrible sort — firsthand. Born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1932, he barely escaped the horrors of the Holocaust. He fled at the age of 6 with his family on the last passenger steamer from Hamburg to the United States. Their departure was on November 8, 1938 — the day before Kristallnacht, a harbinger of more horrific things to come.

Once in the U.S., Brieger grew up in San Francisco, earned his M.D. in 1957 from the University of California, San Francisco; a M.P.H. from Harvard in 1962; and a 1968 Ph.D. in the history of medicine from Johns Hopkins under the mentorship of then director Owsei Temkin (1902–2002), a leading expert on the history of medicine and culture.

Brieger served on the department’s faculty from 1966 to 1970; headed medical history programs at both Duke and the University of California, San Francisco; and served as president of the American Association of the History of Medicine before returning to Johns Hopkins in 1984 to become director of the Department of the History of Medicine.

He died on January 13, 2021, of heart failure at the age of 89.

“He transformed the department from a research center with occasional students into a rigorous and successful academic graduate program, central to the life of the department and the field of the history of medicine,” says Jeremy Greene, the current department director and a protégé of Brieger. “He was a towering figure in our field, and he played a key part in building the history of medicine and technology here at Johns Hopkins and beyond.”

A co-author of the two-volume 1989 history of Johns Hopkins Medicine entitled A Model of Its Kind: A Centennial History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins, Brieger was “warm, open and generous with his time and advice,” Greene says.