Dr Sigismund Lewis (c.1820-1899)

by Arnold Lewis and Saul Marks

Sigismund Lewis obtained his medical degree in Berlin in 1846 and practiced in Hamburg before settling in Liverpool during the 1850s. During the following 40 or so years this erudite and kindly doctor acted as a one-man health service to the Liverpool Jewish community and was appointed honorary medical officer to virtually all of the community’s welfare institutions.

Although Sigismund involved himself with, and held office, in several Jewish organizations including the Liverpool Old Hebrew Congregation and Hovevai Zion, it was his work in helping the poverty-stricken sick for which he is most remembered. He was especially committed to the healthcare of the pupils and teachers of the Hebrew Schools. There, he performed regular medical inspections, performed mass vaccinations and arranged the provision of supplementary food, clothing and medicines to the needy pupils which he often paid for himself.

The Liverpool Jewish community’s archives contain an interesting medical report which Sigismund wrote to the executive of the Liverpool Old Hebrew Congregation (LOHC) on 16 October 1874. It graphically describes the problems he had encountered during the previous year.

Sigismund begins his report by remarking that the sanitary conditions of the Jewish poor had deteriorated during the past year compared with that of the year before and also in comparison with that of the general population of Liverpool. He also records that fact that the death rate in Liverpool was the second-highest out of 21 of the largest cities in the UK. However, on a more positive note he reports that all cases of scarletina (which had become an increasingly fatal disease) under his care had recovered.

Sigismund goes on to state that: “In contagious diseases amongst the poor the medical man finds himself hampered by extraneous circumstances which are inseperable from poverty. There is want of space, deficiency of nutrition and dearth of bed and body linen.”

He then instances a family where two small children were dangerously ill. The older child had scarletina with dropsy and the younger one was suffering from pneumonia. The whole family inhabited a single room measuring 11ft x 11ft (at a rental of 3/6 per week). The beds and a few other items of furniture left a space of only 3ft wide to move around in. Sigismund makes the telling remark that: “My endeavours to induce patients suffering from severe diseases to avail themselves of our hospitals have only partly met with success. Our Poor will rather submit to the drawbacks of their homes than go amongst strangers in deed and habit.”

Sigismund was Honorary Medical Officer to the Jewish schools in Liverpool for 43 years and Medical Officer to Cunard and various other steamship companies for 40 years, during which time he became known for his kindness towards those in his care. He also served as Honorary Medical Officer to the Jewish Board of Guardians and the Ladies’ Benevolent Society for many years, and Honorary Secretary for Liverpool for the Palestine Exploration Fund.

In 1881, the Liverpool Jewish community presented him with an address and a purse of gold, in recognition of his work for the community. In 1896, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the award of his medical degree, he received an address in Latin from his Alma Mater.

A few years before his death, he moved to Southampton, where he lived with his daughter until his death in July 1899. His grandson was the eccentric philanthropist and cricket-lover, Sir Julien Cahn.

Jewish Chronicle, 14 July 1899, page 16 (available via JC Archive (subscription required) at http://www.thejc.com).

Grave References
Sigismund Lewis (c.1820-1899): A 07.30
Eliza Lewis (née Goldstucker, his wife; c.1830-1895): A 22.18
Rachel Lewis (their daughter; 1861-1862): 136C
(A stillborn child, 1872): (unknown)
Bella Lewis (Sigismund’s mother?; 1779/80-1864): A 06.31