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. 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.
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.
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.
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)" 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.
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.Schistosomiasis
Cultural aspects of medicine
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)