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Hans Zinsser

Professor of Bacteriology

Centurion, 1916–1940

Born 17 November 1878 in New York (Manhattan), New York

Died 4 September 1940 in New York (Manhattan), New York

Buried Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Sleepy Hollow, New York

Proposed by Samuel W. Lambert and Bashford Dean

Elected 5 February 1916 at age thirty-seven

Archivist’s Note: Father of Hans Handforth Zinsser; brother of Frederick G. Zinsser; father-in-law of Vernon Munroe Jr. and Barbara L. Zinsser

Proposer of:

Century Memorial

The father and mother of Hans Zinsser both came to America from the Rhineland. No son of a Pilgrim father ever lived a life of greater devotion to America than this son of these German parents. Friendship found him not less loyal. One Centurion met him as an undergraduate in Columbia when the college was at Madison Avenue and 49th Street. He writes: “Hans quite literally ran into me on the dark stairway, leading to the basement of Hamilton Hall and there began a friendship without end. Only a few days before his death we had a long talk at the Century Club which I shall never forget.” Another Centurion writes of a brief visit to his home in Boston one morning when Zinsser quietly disappeared and dismissed a waiting taxicab so that he could drive his friend to the station and tell him, even before he had told his family, that he was facing death. The tale was “simply told.” As he later expressed it in his book, something “had taken place in his mind that he regarded as sort of a compensatory adjustment to the thought that he would soon be dead.” He told how the memory of one of his dearest friends was then sustaining him; it was clear that “in the prospect of death life seemed to be given a new meaning and fresh poignancy.” It was clear on the occasions of those all too few subsequent meetings that from then on “instead of being saddened, he found to his own delighted astonishment that his sensitiveness to the simplest experiences, even for such things that in other years he might hardly have noticed, was infinitely enhanced.”

Monkeys, guinea pigs and a passion for microbes were not the customary joys of the Roosevelt Hospital internes in 1904, but they were for Zinsser. Human experience with the sick and unfortunate began then with a vengeance and never let up until he died. From 1905 to 1910, as an instructor in bacteriology in the College of Physicians and Surgeons, he worked at Roosevelt and St. Luke’s Hospitals and found less and less time for fewer and fewer patients, in a little office in his West Side home. Then came three years in California as assistant professor and professor in bacteriology at Leland Stanford University. Ray Lyman Wilbur and he became great friends. A few years later, when Zinsser was called to make the annual address in the Columbia Chapel, his topic was “A Scientific Basis of Religion.” The same evening, talking late into the night, he said it was the second time in his life he had ever been to church and that the first time was a mistake. Yet Zinsser once said that he had read his Bible through more than once; and Centurion Keppel in a memorial address remarked that “Hans resembled in more ways than one—though he never would have admitted it—the Apostle Paul as revealed in the words: ‘Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.’”

A trip to Serbia for the Red Cross in 1915, service during the World War as a Major in the U. S. A. Medical Corps, later, Colonel and Sanitary Inspector of the First Army Corps, and Second Field Army of the A.E.F. in France, ended with the Distinguished Service Medal from the U. S. A., the Legion of Honor from France and the Order of St. Salva from Serbia. An epidemic of respiratory infection on the steamer home from France took one of his closest friends in its toll the day he landed. Zinsser was brought from the ship to a hospital with his larynx so swollen he could hardly breathe. Those who spent days and nights with him as his breath gradually cleared remember the gaiety of his scarcely audible whispers from a sore and swollen windpipe. It should also be recorded that in the course of laboratory efforts to discover a preventive for typhus fever he contracted the disease himself, and all but died of it. After ten years as Professor of Bacteriology and Immunity at Columbia, he made the final shift of his teaching career to the corresponding chair at Harvard Medical School. There he remained to the end. Many scientific associations and organizations concerned with pathology, bacteriology and immunology counted him as a member, and Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Lehigh and Western Reserve awarded him honorary degrees.

He wrote “A Textbook of Bacteriology,” “Infection and Resistance,” “Resistance to Infectious Diseases,” and many papers on bacteriology, immunity and the preservation of public health. Unsigned in the Atlantic Monthly appeared some of the poems in which he painted his most delicate thought. The charm of his medical analysis of the past in “Rats, Lice and History” has appealed to countless readers who never suspected that the author had personally battled for his life with the villain of the piece—the dreaded typhus. Finally in the more than two years passed in the valley of the shadow of death he wrote the unique record of his own life, “As I Remember Him”—a testament of beauty, of affection and of courage, that summed up a rich career and a noble nature.

Geoffrey Parsons
1940 Century Memorials