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Biographical Memoirs: Volume 89
October 6, 1902–July 18, 2002
BY SAMUEL H. GREENBLATT
OWSEI TEMKIN WAS NOT A scientist in the ordinary sense of one who works at the benchtop, in the field, or with theoretical models. Rather, as a physician-historian he spent a long and productive lifetime studying how medicine and science develop and interact with the cultures that harbor them. His election to the National Academy of Sciences in 1978, 10 years after his formal retirement, was indicative of the recognition that he had achieved for this effort. It also signified the immense respect that he commanded in the scholarly world by virtue of his extraordinary knowledge of languages and historical cultures, the depth of his analyses, and his gentle but firm modesty. Indeed, gentleness and modesty were his personal hallmarks, but his modesty was not false in any way. He understood his own intellectual powers and the place they gave him in society, but he abhorred self-promotion, mainly because it was inconsistent with dispassionate scholarship.
The timing of Temkin’s election to the National Academy of Sciences was paradigmatic of the way he achieved recognition for his work—late but in nearly full measure. Since he worked prodigiously but quietly, the size and quality of his contribution became apparent rather slowly to the