Gert Brieger, History of Medicine Leader and Scholar, Dies

01/21/2021

Gert Brieger, M.D., M.P.H., Ph.D., former director of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine Institute of the History of Medicine, died on Jan. 13, due to heart failure. He was 89. Brieger is credited with transforming the department from a research center with occasional students to a rigorous and successful academic graduate program that advanced the history of medicine field.

“When I was visiting Johns Hopkins as a prospective medical student, I recall the time and space he created to sit down with me — a 20-something applicant he had never met before — to open up a wide-ranging conversation on the nature of medical practice as something that only made sense in historical and social context. That conversation was a crucial piece of how and why I became a historian myself,” says Jeremy Greene, M.D., Ph.D., William H. Welch Professor and Director of the Department of the History of Medicine and Director of the Center for Medical Humanities and Social Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1932, Brieger and his family came to the United States in November 1938, fleeing Nazi Germany on the last passenger steamer from Hamburg Harbor — the day before Kristallnacht. He grew up in San Francisco.

Brieger earned his M.D. in 1957 from the University of California, San Francisco, and his M.P.H. in 1962 from the Harvard University School of Public Health. In 1968, Brieger received the fourth doctoral degree awarded from Johns Hopkins’ Department of the History of Medicine, under the mentorship of then-director Owsei Temkin (1902–2002), one of the world's foremost experts on the history of medicine and culture.

Brieger served on the faculty as an assistant professor of the history of medicine, from 1966 to 1970. Then, Brieger left Johns Hopkins to become the first professor of the Department of the History of Medicine at Duke University, where he helped to establish a graduate program. He left Duke to chair the History of Medicine program at the University of California, San Francisco, where he served from 1975–1984.

In 1984, he returned to Johns Hopkins to become the William H. Welch Professor and director of the Department of the History of Medicine.

"Gert was a passionate advocate for scholarship and humanism as vital components of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine curriculum,” says Charles Wiener, M.D., president of Johns Hopkins Medicine International, and professor of medicine and physiology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “He chaired a committee in the 1980s that wrote a remarkably prescient report about the future of medical education at Johns Hopkins. In 2003, when we were conceiving the Johns Hopkins Genes to Society medical school curriculum, Gert was one the first people we consulted to understand the history of prior reform efforts and his views on the future of medical education."

Upon his retirement in 2002, Brieger was awarded the title of distinguished service professor from The Johns Hopkins University and continued to play an active role in the Department of the History of Medicine and served on numerous editorial boards and academic advisory committees.

“Gert Brieger's tremendous expansion of the role of the Institute of the History of Medicine as an academic program training historians was one of his greatest accomplishments. In the 55 years before Gert became director in 1984, only 18 graduate degrees (11 M.A.s/7 Ph.D.s) had been awarded by the Institute. In Gert's 17-year tenure, 25 degrees (11 M.A.s/14 Ph.D.s) were received by the students who were admitted — the result of the addition of new faculty positions, student funding and the establishment of a structured and rigorous program,” says Christine Ruggere, associate director of the Institute of the History of Medicine and curator of the historical collection at The Johns Hopkins University.

Brieger also served as editor-in-chief of the Bulletin of the History of Medicine, the journal of the American Association of the History of Medicine and a Johns Hopkins University Press publication, from 1985 until 2004. He published and edited numerous journal articles, contributed chapters to dozens of books, and co-authored a two-volume history of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, titled A Model of Its Kind: A Centennial History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins.

In addition, Brieger was elected as a member of the Institute of Medicine in 1985, now called the National Academy of Medicine. In 1993, he received the Nicholas E. Davies Memorial Scholar Award for Scholarly Activities in the Humanities and History of Medicine from the American College of Physicians.

Brieger is survived by his wife Katharine; his daughter Heidi; his son William and his wife Sarah Krevans; his son Ben and five grandchildren. At the time of his death, he was living in Lincoln, Massachusetts.