Hans Zinsser

Hans Zinsser (November 17, 1878 – September 4, 1940) was an American physician, bacteriologist, and prolific author.[1] The author of over 200 books and medical articles, he was also a published poet. Some of his verses were published in The Atlantic Monthly.[2] His 1940 publication, As I Remember Him: the Biography of R.S., won one of the early National Book Awards, the sixth and last annual award for Nonfiction voted by members of the American Booksellers Association.[3][4]

He is remembered especially for his 1935 book, Rats, Lice and History.

Hans Zinsser
Hans Zinsser. Photograph. Wellcome V0027629
BornNovember 17, 1878
New York City
DiedSeptember 4, 1940 (age 61)
New York City
EducationTimothy Dwight School
Alma materColumbia University (B.S. & M.D.)
Known forTyphus
Scientific career
FieldsPhysician, bacteriologist, and epidemiologist
InstitutionsColumbia University
Stanford University
Harvard Medical School
Doctoral advisorPhilip Hanson Hiss
Doctoral studentsWilliam Hammon
Rebecca Lancefield


Early life

The son of German immigrants, Zinsser was born in New York City in 1878. He attended Timothy Dwight School on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He received his undergraduate degree from Columbia University in 1899 and completed both a master's degree and a doctorate in medicine there in 1903.[5]

In 1905, he married Ruby Handforth Kunz, eldest daughter of the mineralogist, George Frederick Kunz, and they had two children, Hans Handforth and Gretel Zinsser, and they all lived in Boston.


Hans Zinsser
Zinsser as a US Army Medical Corps officer in World War I

After holding a series of academic medicine positions, Zinsser became an associate professor at Stanford University in 1910. In 1913, he moved to a position at his alma mater. At Columbia, he was the doctoral advisor of Rebecca Lancefield, although he did not permit her to physically work in his laboratory due to her gender.[6] Ten years later, Zinsser was hired by Harvard Medical School, where he stayed — except for service in the US Army Medical Corps in World War I — until his death.

US Army Distinguished Service Medal

Zinsser taught as an exchange professor and worked with the American Red Cross in France, Russia, Serbia and China, and was noted for his work in typhus and immunology. He became a lieutenant colonel in the US Army and served overseas during World War I. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, the citation for which read as follows "For exceptionally meritorious and distinguished services-- while acting as Sanitation Inspector of the Second Army he organized, perfected and administered with extraordinary and exceptional success a plan of military sanitation and epidemic-disease control." Zinsser also received another military citation for taking exceptional risks to minister to wounded soldiers while under direct enemy fire. He was also awarded the Order of St. Sava of Serbia and the Legion of Honour in France.[2]

Zinsser's scientific work focused on bacteriology and immunology and he is most associated with typhus, especially the form called Brill–Zinsser disease, his namesake. He isolated the typhus bacterium and developed a protective vaccine. He wrote several books about biology and bacteria, notably Rats, Lice and History (1935), a "biography" of typhus fever.[7] Zinsser had a strong influence on the work of Albert Coons (1912–1978), who developed the technique of immunohistochemistry.

Hans Zinsser Gravesite
The gravesite of Hans Zinsser

Zinsser succumbed to acute leukemia in 1940. He is interred in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, New York.


  1. ^ Summers WC (1999). "Hans Zinsser: a tale of two cultures". The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine. 72 (5): 341–7. PMC 2579027. PMID 11049165.
  2. ^ a b "Zinsser, Hans". National Cyclopaedia of American Biography. New York: James T. White Company. 1950. Volume XXXVI, pp. 35-36.
  3. ^ "Books and Authors", The New York Times, 1936-04-12, p. BR12. ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851-2007).
  4. ^ "Books and Authors", The New York Times, 1941-02-16, p. BR12. ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851-2007).
  5. ^ Mueller JH (1 December 1940). "Hans Zinsser, 1878–1940". Journal of Bacteriology. 40 (6): i2. PMC 374674. PMID 16560389.
  6. ^ O'Hern, Elizabeth (1975). "Rebecca Craighill Lancefield, Pioneer Microbiologist" (PDF). ASM News. 4: 805–810.
  7. ^ Zinsser, Hans (1935), Rats, Lice, and History: Being a Study in Biography, Which, After Twelve Preliminary Chapters Indispensable for the Preparation of the Lay Reader, Deals With the Life History of Typhus Fever (Reprinted in 1963, 1996 (Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers), and 2007 (Transaction Publishers))

Further reading

  • Zinsser, Hans. As I Remember Him: The Biography of R.S. Gloucester, Mass: Peter Smith. 1970.

External links

1935 in science

The year 1935 in science and technology involved some significant events, listed below.

Albert Coons

Albert Hewett Coons (June 28, 1912 – September 30, 1978) was an American physician, pathologist, and immunologist. He was the first person to conceptualize and develop immunofluorescent techniques for labeling antibodies in the early 1940s.

Alberto P. León

Alberto P. León (1909-2001) was the Secretary of Health of Mexico beginning in 1939. He is the 1991 holder of the Mexican National Prize on Medicine and Health.

León was born in Irapuato, Mexico, on July 12, 1909 and died on August 4th 2001 in Mexico City.

He gained his BS degree at the Preparatory School of Aguascalientes in 1926; his MD at the National University of Mexico in 1933; and MPH degree at the Harvard School of Public Health, USA in 1936. At Harvard he studied under Hans Zinsser. He was Professor of Bacteriology and Immunology at the School of Medicine, National University of México from 1946 to 1950 and since 1946 Professor of Clinics for Infections Diseases.

He worked for the Department of Public Health from 1930 to 1934, doing his residency with the Medical Emergency Services of the City of Mexico during 1932 to 1933. He was Consulting Physician of the Department of Public Welfare of Mexico in 1933 and held similar post plus that of Chief of Internal Medicine of the Spanish Hospital of Mexico City from 1933 to 1934.

In 1939 León was appointed General Secretary of Health in the Mexican Secretariat of Health.

For his studies at the Harvard School of Public Health during 1934 to 1936, León received a Fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation.

In 1936 he became Technical Supervisor of the Department of Public Health in Mexico, after which he was Founder and Director of the Office of Epidemiology, of the same Department, from 1937 to 1940 and Founder and Director of the Institute of the BCG of Mexico from 1948 to 1965.

From 1938 to 1988 he worked as a professor at the Institute for Tropical Diseases in Mexico (Instituto de Enfermedades Tropicales).

In addition to his previously mentioned academic posts, he was Professor of Immunology, School of Biological Sciences, National Polytechnic Institute of Mexico, 1945 to 1950; Professor of Epidemiology, Immunology and Bacteriology, School of Public Health, 1938 to 1950; Professor, School of Medicine, University of California at Los Angeles, 1950. Leon was a leading expert on public health issues in Mexico, especially the vaccination campaign against tuberculosis.León was fellow of six national societies, President of three of them, and a member of seven international societies. From 1946 to 1949 he was President of the Mexican Society for Geography and Statistics (Sociedad Mexicana de Geografía y Estadística), the first scientific society founded 1833 in America.

In 1948 he was Chief of the Mexican Delegation of the World Health Assembly in Geneva, during which his initiative and efforts helped to establish the Division of Environmental Sanitation and the Panel on Brucellosis.

He received the first award of Physiology of the Mexican Society of Internal Medicine and the Gold Medal and Diploma for Public Health Merit of the Department of Public Health and Public Assistance. Silver Medal, Gold Medal and Diplomas for 25, 30 and 35 years of Professorship of the School of Medicine National University of Mexico, have been awarded to him and other honours include: Gold Medal and Diploma for Health Merit, Mexican Public Health Association; Diplom for the Foundation and Distinguished Services, National Committee Against Tuberculosis, Mexico.

Honorary membership Inter American Statistical Institute. For 40 years León was member and vice president of the

American Public Health Association.

He published 1992 his book 50 Years Of Investigation In Mexico Marquéz López Editorial Inc.

In 1979 Leon started to conduct a research on cancer treatment. Unfortunately because of his old age he could not publish a scientific publication of the successful therapies cases applied. Nevertheless, he was able to cure some cases of cancer sick patients in his practice, and most of those where hopeless cases.

He married 1934 María del Refugio Lomelí Sánchez in Mexico City and they raised 9 children.


Apitherapy is a branch of alternative medicine that uses honey bee products, including honey, pollen, propolis, royal jelly and bee venom. Proponents of apitherapy make claims for its health benefits which are unsupported by evidence-based medicine.

Barnett Cohen

Barnett Cohen (1891–1952) was a Russian-born American bacteriologist who performed the first ultra-microscopic surgeries, including on amoeba.Cohen received his Ph.D. from Yale University. He was president of the Society of American Bacteriologists, and a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science,

the American Chemical Society, and American Public Health Association.

Brill–Zinsser disease

Brill–Zinsser disease is a delayed relapse of epidemic typhus, caused by Rickettsia prowazekii. After a patient contracts epidemic typhus from the fecal matter of an infected louse (Pediculus humanus), the rickettsia can remain latent and reactivate months or years later, with symptoms similar to or even identical to the original attack of typhus, including a maculopapular rash. This reactivation event can then be transmitted to other individuals through fecal matter of the louse vector, and form the focus for a new epidemic of typhus.

Edwin Broun Fred

Edwin Broun Fred (March 22, 1887 – January 16, 1981) was an American bacteriologist and academic who was the 15th president of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, serving from 1945 to 1958. Born in Virginia, Fred studied at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and the University of Göttingen. After briefly teaching at Virginia Polytechnic, Fred took a position with Wisconsin. He was dean of the graduate school from 1934 until 1943, then was dean of the College of Agriculture until 1945. He ascended to the presidency and was known for his response to the postwar growth in admissions. Fred was the president of the Society of American Bacteriologists in 1932.

Flea circus

A flea circus is a circus sideshow attraction in which fleas are attached (or appear to be attached) to miniature carts and other items, and encouraged to perform circus acts within a small housing.

H. R. Cox

Herald Rea Cox (1907–1986) was an American bacteriologist. The bacterial family Coxiellaceae and the genus Coxiella, which include the organism that causes Q fever, are named after him.

Harry Eagle

Harry Eagle (born in New York City on 1905; died June 21, 1992) was an American physician and pathologist. He studied, and later worked, at Johns Hopkins University before moving on to the National Institutes of Health. From 1961 to 1988 he worked at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He is best known for Eagle's minimal essential medium, which is important in understanding how human and mammalian cells reproduce. He is also known for the Eagle effect. In 1973, he was a co-winner of the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize of Columbia University. In 1987, he was awarded the National Medal of Science for his work in the Biological Sciences.

Julian Davies (microbiologist)

Julian Edmund Davies FRS (born January 1932) is a British microbiologist, professor emeritus, and Principal Investigator of the Davies Lab, at University of British Columbia.


Moths comprise a group of insects related to butterflies, belonging to the order Lepidoptera. Most lepidopterans are moths, and there are thought to be approximately 160,000 species of moth, many of which have yet to be described. Most species of moth are nocturnal, but there are also crepuscular and diurnal species.

Rats, Lice and History

Rats, Lice and History is a 1935 book written by biologist Hans Zinsser on the subject of typhus, a disease on which he performed significant research. Zinsser frames the book as a biography of the infectious disease, tracing its path through history. An important theme of the book is the (according to Zinsser, underappreciated) effect infectious diseases such as typhus had on the course of history, a topic which would later be treated in other popular works such as Plagues and Peoples and Guns, Germs and Steel.

Written for a lay audience, Zinsser's humorous and literate style was well received by readers, and it was widely read on its release, and has since gone through many editions.

Rebecca Lancefield

Rebecca Craighill Lancefield (January 5, 1895 – March 3, 1981) was a prominent American microbiologist. She joined the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (now Rockefeller University) in New York in 1918, and was associated with that institute throughout her long and outstanding career. Her bibliography comprises more than 50 publications published over 60 years.

Lancefield is best known for her serological classification of ß-hemolytic streptococcal bacteria, Lancefield grouping, which is based on the carbohydrate composition of bacterial antigens found on their cell walls. She is also responsible for the serological typing of Group A Streptococci.

Sedgwick Memorial Medal

The Sedgwick Memorial Medal, given by the American Public Health Association, was established in 1929 for distinguished service and advancement of public health knowledge and practice. It is considered the APHA's highest honor.

Tang Feifan

Tang Feifan (simplified Chinese: 汤飞凡; traditional Chinese: 湯飛凡; pinyin: Tāng Fēifán; July 23, 1897 - September 30, 1958) was a Chinese medical microbiologist best known for culturing the Chlamydia trachomatis agent in the yolk sacs of eggs.Tang was persecuted during the "Pulling Out Bourgeois White Flag Movement" and committed suicide in 1958.

Typhus vaccine

Typhus vaccines are vaccines developed to protect against typhus. As of 2017 they are not commercially available.One typhus vaccine consists of formaldehyde-inactivated Rickettsia prowazekii. Two doses are injected subcutaneously four weeks apart. Booster doses are required every six to twelve months.

William Hammon

William McDowall Hammon (1904 – September 19, 1989) was an American physician and researcher, best known for his work on poliomyelitis. In his early twenties and prior to becoming a research physician, Hammon worked for four years as a medical missionary in the former Belgian Congo. After returning, he received his undergraduate degree from Allegheny College in 1932. Completing his medical training at Harvard Medical School in 1936, Hammon then studied with the bacteriologist Hans Zinsser, receiving a Master of Public Health degree in 1938, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in 1939. During this period Hammon co-discovered the first vaccine for feline panleucopenia.Hammon was presented with the Medal of Freedom in 1946 by President Harry Truman.


Zinsser is a surname. Notable people with the surname include:

Frederick G. Zinsser, American businessman

Hans Zinsser (1878–1940), American physician, bacteriologist and writer

Judith Zinsser (born 1943), American historian and writer

William Zinsser (1922–2015), American writer, editor, literary critic and teacher



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