Charles Joseph Singer (18761960), by unknown photographer
Singer, Charles Joseph (18761960), historian of medicine and science, was born on 2 November 1876 at 22 Brunswick Square, Camberwell, London, the fifth child and fourth son of , headmaster of Jews' College School and minister of Borough New Synagogue, and his wife, Charlotte, née Pyke. Singer acquired a grounding in Greek, Hebrew, and Bible studies from his father, an erudite scholar who was appointed rabbi of the New West End Synagogue, London, in 1878. He attended the City of London School from the age of twelve, where he became interested in the natural sciences and was persuaded to study medicine. He began the medical course at University College, London, in 1893, but discovered a preference for zoology and won a scholarship at Magdalen College, Oxford, to pursue that subject, which remained a lifelong interest. He graduated BA in 1898 and then returned to the study of medicine, at St Mary's Hospital, Paddington, London, where he graduated BM in 1903. He qualified MRCS and LRCP and was immediately appointed medical officer to a small geographical expedition to Abyssinia, where he spent nearly a year.
On his return Singer completed his residence at St Mary's and graduated BM BCh at Oxford (DM in 1911). He then filled various posts in London, Brighton, and, in 1908, Singapore. Back in London he was admitted MRCP in 1909 and was appointed registrar to the Cancer Hospital, where he undertook pathological research, and physician to the Dreadnought Hospital, where he extended his interest in tropical diseases. He retained these posts until he went to Oxford in 1914 and for a time he was concurrently in consulting practice in Westminster.
On 20 July 1910 Singer married Dorothea Waley Cohen (18821964) [see ], second daughter of Nathaniel Louis Cohen, a City businessman, and sister of , oil industrialist. They had a son and a daughter. The Cohens were one of the leading Anglo-Jewish families; Dorothea was a wealthy woman, and her money was vital to Singer's later work. She was already a respected student of alchemical and medieval manuscripts, and she devoted herself to many social and humanitarian activities. Singer's own interest in the history of medicine dated from this time. In 1911 he wrote two papers on Benjamin Marten, seen as a neglected early germ theorist; other historical papers followed over the next three years. In 1912 Singer was a founder member of the History of Medicine section of the Royal Society of Medicine, and in 192022 he was its president. Although he became an enthusiast for the history of medicine, Singer regarded it as an improving study for medical practitioners, rather than as a taught discipline.
When Sir William Osler offered Singer a studentship in pathology at Oxford in 1914the duties of which were to be mainly historicalthe Singers threw themselves into the task of improving the facilities for the study of history of science, spending generously from their own resources and occupying a room in the Radcliffe Camera. During most of the First World War, Singer served as a pathologist, with the rank of captain, in the Royal Army Medical Corps, and was active in Malta and Salonika. While on military service he published fifteen notable papers on medieval and renaissance medicine, and also his first major work, the first volume of Studies in the History and Method of Science (1917).
After the war Singer returned to Oxford as lecturer in the history of biological sciences, but he found the atmosphere much changed, and in 1920 he accepted a lectureship in the history of medicine at University College, London. Singer was not a willing teacher, though he was always prepared to lecture on topics of his choice. At University College his lecturing duties were light, but he benefited from the stimulating company and from the copious research help that was available to him, and the next twelve years were richly productive. In 1921 the second volume of his Studies appeared. He contributed to The Legacy of Greece and to other volumes in the Legacy series, and with E. R. Bevan edited The Legacy of Israel, to which both Singers contributed. In the first volume of Studies Singer had included his important discussion of the visions of St Hildegard of Bingen, and in 1922 he was awarded a DLitt (Oxon.) for that and other historical essays. He had been elected FRCP in 1917 and in 19234 he gave the Fitzpatrick lectures of that college; they were published in extended form in 1925 as The Evolution of Anatomy, the first serious study of that subject in English, and were followed by Singer's translations of significant medieval anatomical works. Dorothea Singer's own monumental catalogue of Greek, Latin, and vernacular alchemical manuscripts in the British Isles was published between 1924 and 1931.
In 1930 Singer gave the first Noguchi lectures at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, in the USA, and after a period at the Huntington Library at Pasadena spent three months as a visiting professor at the University of California at Berkeley. In 1931 he declined the invitation to take up a chair at Johns Hopkins as it involved a heavy teaching load and he had just accepted the title of professor of history of medicine in the University of London, which he held until 1942. He returned to teach at Berkeley in 1932, his lectures there being published as his Short History of Biology (1931) and Short History of Science (1941).
In 1934 the Singers moved to Kilmarth, near Par, Cornwall, where their library could be adequately and more economically housed, and where they could receive more comfortably the stream of scholars from many countries. During the Second World War, Singer taught biology to the boys of King's School, Canterbury, evacuated to Cornwall. In the pre-war years Singer and his wife were very active in assisting Jewish and non-Jewish refugees from Germany, finding them homes and employment, and they were involved with the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning, which helped scholars suffering from Nazi oppression.
Singer's output in the post-war years was prolific and diverse: in 1946 he published with Chaim Rabin a study of the Arabic sources in the Tabulae anatomicae sex of Vesalius; in 1948 a sumptuous book on the early history of the alum industry; in 1952 a translation and study of the writings of Vesalius on the human brain, and, with J. H. G. Grattan, an important work on Anglo-Saxon magic and medicine; and in 1956 an annotated translation of Galen's On Anatomical Procedures. Dorothea's studies on Giordano Bruno were published in 1950. There then emerged under Singer's chief editorship, and generously funded by ICI, the History of Technology (5 vols., 19548), the first major work in English to embrace the whole subject from the earliest times to the end of the nineteenth century. It attracted mixed reviews but undoubtedly contributed to the growing interest in the subject.
Singer was always very active in the international field, and he was president (192831) of the Académie Internationale d'Histoire des Sciences, and of the international congresses held in London in 1922 and 1931. With the award of an honorary DSc degree in 1936, Singer became the holder of the three Oxford doctorates in medicine, science, and letters. He was an honorary fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and of the Royal Society of Medicine, and a fellow of University College, London. He was a founder and from 1946 to 1948 the first president of the British Society for the History of Science. He was awarded the Osler medal by the University of Oxford and, jointly with his wife, received the Sarton medal of the American History of Science Society. In 1953 colleagues presented him with a Festschrift, Science, Medicine and History, with a bibliography of his published writings.
Singer was sturdily built and enjoyed walking and swimming, though he took little interest in sport. His chief recreations were travel, talking, reading, and, in later life, the cultivation of succulent plants. He was a witty conversationalist, and to the end kept up an immense correspondence. His influence was felt even in fields remote from his main subjects. He died at his home in Cornwall on 10 June 1960.
E. A. Underwood, rev. Anita McConnell
C. Jilla, Charles Singer: his life, aims and achievements in the history of medicine, BSc diss., Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, 1991 · The Times (13 June 1960) · A. S. MacNalty, Charles Singer, the man and the historian, Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, 55 (1962), 85960 · G. Miller, Charles and Dorothea Singer's aid to Nazi victims, Koroth, 8 (1112) (1985), 20717 · personal knowledge (1971) · private information (1971) · M. Kranzberg, Charles Singer and A history of technology, Technology and Culture, 1/4 (1960), 299302 · V. D. L., Simeon Singer, Encyclopedia Judaica · b. cert. · d. cert. · m. cert. · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1961)
MHS Oxf., corresp.
U. Southampton L., papers relating to German anti-Semitism
Wellcome L., corresp. and papers | BL, corresp. with Society of Authors, Add. MS 56809
Bodl. Oxf., letters to O. G. S. Crawford
Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with C. D. Darlington
Rice University, Houston, Texas, Woodson Research Center, corresp. with Sir Julian Huxley
U. Southampton L., corresp. with James Parkes
U. Southampton L., corresp. with Cecil Roth
U. Sussex, letters to J. G. Crowther
Wellcome L., corresp. with E. A. Underwood
photograph, c.19141918, Wellcome L. · double portrait, photograph (with Dorothy Singer), repro. in Encyclopedia Judaica, vol. 14, p. 1608 · photograph, Wellcome L. [see illus.]
Wealth at death
£3352 14s. 11d.: probate, 23 Aug 1961, CGPLA Eng. & Wales