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Singer [née Cohen], Dorothea Waley (1882–1964), historian of medicine and philanthropist, was born on 17 December 1882, the second daughter of Nathaniel Louis Cohen (d. 1913), stockbroker, and his wife, Julia M. Waley. She took a general arts course at Queen's College, London, and on 20 July 1910 married , then employed as a hospital pathologist. They adopted a son, Andrew Waley Singer, and a daughter, Nancy Waley Singer, who in 1949 became the second wife of Edgar Ashworth Underwood (1899–1980). Underwood was at the time director of the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, and later the memorialist of Charles and Dorothea Singer.

The Singers lived in London until 1914, moving to Oxford when Charles Singer embarked on a career in the history of medicine; in 1934 they moved to Cornwall, their principal home thereafter. Dorothea collaborated with her husband on a series of papers dealing with the plague, but soon embarked on her own study of pre-Renaissance scientific manuscripts, publishing a study of over 100 plague tractates dating from about 1348 to 1485. This work led to her endeavour to catalogue and codify those manuscripts in Great Britain and Ireland which related to science and medicine; by 1919 she knew of some 30,000, many of which were copies or variants.

In 1924 the Union Académique Internationale published the first volume of Dorothea's monumental catalogue of alchemical manuscripts, dealing with the Greek texts. Three succeeding volumes (1928–31) dealt with the Latin and vernacular manuscripts. This experience enabled her to lecture on palaeography when she accompanied her husband to the University of California in 1930 and 1932. Her vast calendar of manuscripts with a scientific content is stored on cards at the British Library as the Singer Collection. Alongside these major projects and numerous shorter articles she served on the councils of various learned societies in Britain and abroad; in 1956 Dorothea and Charles Singer were joint recipients of the Sarton medal of the History of Science Society of America.

Prior to the Second World War, Dorothea was among those who pioneered the placing of refugee girls as student nurses, and she continued to be involved with the welfare of refugees from Nazi Germany. Her interest in social welfare led to her biography of the British social worker Margrieta Beer, and she took an active part in the local Women's Institutes and Red Cross. When she became afflicted with increasing deafness, Dorothea entered into an intensive correspondence with otologists and Ministry of Health officials regarding the provision of hearing aids.

Dorothea Singer published in 1950 a catalogue of early manuscripts on the plague, and in the same year her biography of the Copernican Giordano Bruno (1548–1600), with a translation of Bruno's ‘On the infinite universe and worlds’, and in 1959 a translation from the German of Friedrich Klemm's work, entitled History of Technology. The Singers were always immensely hospitable, welcoming visiting historians to Kilmarth, Par, their remote Cornish home. In the years after Charles Singer's death in 1960 the deterioration of her sight and hearing made life very difficult for Dorothea and those who cared for her. She died at Kilmarth on 24 June 1964.

Anita McConnell


E. A. Underwood, ‘Dorothea Waley Singer’, British Journal for the History of Science, 2 (1964–5), 260–62 · E. A. Underwood, ‘Dorothea Waley Singer’, Nature, 205 (1965), 1262–3 · WWW · Jewish Chronicle (10 July 1964), 28a · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1964) · m. cert.


U. Birm., catalogue of pre-sixteenth-century British and Irish Latin and vernacular plague texts · Wellcome L., corresp. and papers |  U. Sussex, letters to J. G. Crowther

Wealth at death  

£4460: probate, 14 Dec 1964, CGPLA Eng. & Wales