Memoir

Hans Zinsser

November 17, 1878 - September 4, 1940


Election Year: 1924
Membership Type: Member

Hans Zinsser’s study of infectious diseases contributed some of our most basic understanding of the relationship between pathogens and healthy tissues. He developed tools and practices that were adopted by scientists, physicians, and public health officials in their efforts to control diseases including syphilis, rheumatic fever, typhus, and others.

The youngest child in an affluent German family, Zinsser was born in New York City and spent his youth studying music, literature, and art. He entered Columbia University with the intent of becoming a writer, but his exposure to biology as an undergraduate triggered a course shift.

Zinsser earned his master’s degree in embryology and his medical degree from Columbia in 1903. He began teaching bacteriology at Columbia in 1905, working on the side as a hospital pathologist. He spent a three-year interlude at Stanford University, but returned to Columbia University in 1913. Zinsser accepted a professorial position at Harvard University in 1923 and remained a faculty member at Harvard until his death from leukemia at age 62.

In addition to his prolific work in the fields of bacteriology, pathology, immunology, and allergy, Zinsser was celebrated for his poetry and prose, as well as public speaking.  He was a member of more than a dozen fraternities, clubs, and honorary societies. Zinsser served with the U.S. Army and the International Red Cross, and he was decorated with service medals from the United States, France, and Serbia.

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