Michael Gelfand

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Michael Gelfand
Born (1912-01-01)1 January 1912
Wynberg, South Africa
Died 12 July 1985(1985-07-12) (aged 73)
Harare, Zimbabwe
Residence Rhodesia/Zimbabwe
Nationality South Africa
Fields Medicine, Physician
Institutions Godfrey Huggins School of Medicine
Alma mater University of Cape Town
Doctoral advisor -
Doctoral students -
Known for working as a tropical medic
Notable awards Order of the Knighthood of St. Sylvester, OBE, CBE

Professor Michael Gelfand OBE, CBE, Knight of the Order of St. Sylvester, MD (Cape Town), FRCP, DPH (London), DMR, Hon. LLD (Zimbabwe and Birmingham), Hon. DLitt (Cape Town), was one of Zimbabwe's most distinguished colonial medical practitioners, who received a Papal Order of the Knighthood of St. Sylvester.[1] Gelfand was noted for a humanistic approach to medicine, and for his historical and ethnographic works, which are considered to have played an important role in his reexamination of significant colonial prejudices he held about African peoples, culture, and religious practices.[2][3]

Professor Gelfand was born in Wynberg, Cape Province, South Africa, in 1912, of immigrant Lithuanian parents, and he died on 12 July 1985, while attending a patient in the Avenues Clinic in Harare, Zimbabwe. Gelfand was a practitioner of Judaism.[4]

After qualifying in South Africa and working there and in England, in 1939 he joined the then-Southern Rhodesia Medical Service as Physician, Pathologist and Radiologist. He had married a Bulawayan, Esther Kollenberg, whom he had met at the University of Cape Town. When their first of three daughters was due, they joined Esther's family in Rhodesia. Once in government service, he quickly gained a reputation by being the only doctor to correctly diagnose the illness of the wife of the Head of the Medical Services.

In 1955, he founded the Central African Journal of Medicine with Joseph Ritchken, and remained its co-editor for many years.[5]

In 1962, he joined the then-University of Rhodesia as founding Professor of African Medicine. From 1970 until his retirement, in 1977, he was Professor and Head of Department of Medicine, and thereafter Emeritius Professor and Senior Clinical Research Fellow.

He was a prolific writer: 330 articles and monographs in various journals on topics ranging from medicine, ethics, philosophy, history and religion, to Shona custom, religion and culture, with titles including "Migration of African Labourers in Rhodesia and Nyasaland (1890 - 1914)"[6] He wrote more than 30 books, amongst them The Sick African and Livingstone, the Doctor.

He is remembered in Zimbabwe with admiration and affection. Esther Gelfand, his widow, still lives in Harare, in the same house they shared together for many years.


Gelfand attended Wynberg Boys' High School and obtained his degree in medicine from the University of Cape Town in 1936. His further medical training was in London.[7]


He was professor and chair of the department of medicine at the University of Zimbabwe and founded the Central African Journal of Medicine. His works on rheumatic diseases, including those featured in The Sick African (1944), have been used as a reference for further study of rheumatic diseases in Africa and complications related to tuberculosis, HIV, and other diseases.[8]

Research interests[edit]


An incomplete list of Gelfand's works is found below.

  • The Sick African (1944)
  • Schistosomiasis in South-Central Africa (1950)
  • Medicine and Magic of the Mashona (1956)
  • Shona Ritual (1959)
  • Medicine in Tropical Africa (1961)
  • Medicine and Custom in Africa (1964)
  • An African's Religion (1966)
  • The African Witch (1967)
  • African Crucible (1968)
  • Diet and Tradition in an African Culture (1971)
  • The Genuine Shona (1973)
  • The Spiritual Beliefs Of The Shona: A Study Based On Field Work Among The East Central Shona (1982)
  • The Traditional medical practitioner in Zimbabwe: His principles of practice and pharmacopoeia (Zambeziana, Vol 17) (1985)


  1. ^ "Professor Michael Gelfand (1912 - 1985)". Archived from the original on 2010-08-13. Retrieved 2009-01-13. 
  2. ^ Ncube, Glen. "Medicine wedded to African humanism". mg.co.za. Mail & Guardian. Retrieved 2014-10-29. 
  3. ^ Braude, Hillel David (2009). "Colonialism, Biko and AIDS: A reflection on the principal of beneficence in South African medical ethics" (PDF). Social Science and Medicine. 68: 2053–2060. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2009.03.019. Retrieved 2014-10-29. 
  4. ^ Ehrlich, Mark Avrum (2009). Encyclopedia of the Jewish Diaspora: Origins, Experiences, and Culture, Volume 1. ABC-CLIO. pp. 518–520. ISBN 9781851098736. 
  5. ^ "Lives of the Fellows, Volume VIII". rcplondon.ac.uk. Royal College of Physicians of London. Retrieved 2014-10-29. 
  6. ^ Palmer, Robin H.; Parsons, Neil. The Roots of Rural Poverty in Central and Southern Africa. University of California Press. p. 167. ISBN 9780520033184. Retrieved 2014-10-29. 
  7. ^ "Michael Gelfand Medical Research Foundation". Archived from the original on 2010-08-13. Retrieved 2009-01-13. 
  8. ^ McGill, P. E.; Njobvu, P.D. (2001-05-01). "Rheumatology in Sub-Saharan Africa". Clinical Rheumatology. 20 (3): 163–164. doi:10.1007/s100670170057.