Academic Genealogy

Genealogy isn’t just for biological relationships. It can also manifest itself in academic relationships as well.

This past May, I took a research ethics course.  During the last week, the professor had a brief discussion on Academic Pedigrees. Of course, this piqued my interest! In class, we discussed the historical context of academic mentorship and how there is strong filial imagery throughout the concepts of mentorship.  Consider this: 

  • the German word for dissertation supervisor is “Doktorvater” which means “doctor father.”
  • there is part of the hippocratic oath that the one taking the oath will “hold him who has taught me this art as equal to my parents”

An academic pedigree reflects the historical tree of those that have trained you, trained them, etc. It is like a family tree of where you come from academically.  There is even a Wikipedia entry for the term academic genealogy, which gives a little more insight.  There are specific discipline genealogies that have been created too.

As I reflected on this on my own professional life I found some interesting history.  I’m a medical librarian at a major teaching academic medical center and at the core of what we do is the provision of medical literature and how it can best be used to support patient care.  At our library, we have a non-traditional approach to how we provide literature to clinical and research teams – we do fairly extensive analyses and summarizations of the various viewpoints that appear in the literature when we respond to complex questions.  This program has come about as a result of my mentor’s experience in medicine and informatics. 

My mentor, early in her career, worked with Dr. Jack D. Myers (1913-1998) [1], Chairman of the Department of Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh from 1950-1970.  One of her mentors, he was regarded as a top-notch internist with superb diagnositc skills.   He translated his strengths into computers and developed software to aid physicians in diagnosing patients.  Part of the process to create this tool involved a team of physicians not only writing the programming to support the system, but also culling information from the medical literature to create the backend infrastructure.  He viewed the medical literature as a required component to clinical practice.  As did his mentor, Dr. Soma Weiss. 

Dr. Soma Weiss (1899-1942) emigrated to the United States in 1920 from Hungary, the son of an appartently well-known architect and engineer in that country.  When he got to the states,  Soma continued to develop his career and quickly was recognized as an excellent physician and teacher.  He died young, at the age of 43, after diagnosing himself with a subarachnoid hemmorhage.  At various stages in his career, he interned at the well-known Bellevue Hospital in New York,  did research at Boston City Hospital, was a faculty member of Harvard’s Department of Medicine and in 1939, appointed Physician-in-Chief at Brigham Hospital in Boston (now part of Brigham & Women’s Hospital).  Dr. Myers was one of  Dr. Weiss’ residents at Brigham Hospital when he began that appointment.  

Dr. Weiss’ medical knowledge has been reported as “enormous” and he’d established an international reputation by the time he was 40 as “a physician, a clinical investigator, but especially a master teacher” according to Dr. William Hollingsworth. [2]  As I read about Dr. Weiss, I was particularly struck by an account of how extensively he was familiar with the medical literature.  In a eulogy about him, Eugene DuBois commented

He knew the literature so thoroughly that it was almost overwhelming.  Once a patient was encountered with a rare disorder of the circulation, and in the history it was noted that about ten years previously he had been admitted to a hospital in Edinburgh.  Soma knew that if he had been there at that particular time with that particular disease, he must have been seen by a certain clinician who had written on the subject.  Soma  hurried to the library, put his hand on the right volume, and found a detailed study of his patient. [2]


Knowing the literature can certainly go a long way. Thus, what we do as medical librarians is extremely important.

Work aside, the genealogist in me can’t end without including some genealogy tidbit.  Soma (i love the name!) arrived in the United States in September 1920 according to the Hollingsworth book.  A quick Ancestry search later and I’d located his New York Passenger List record.   The then twenty-one year old departed Trieste, Italy and arrived in New York on September 7, 1920 on the Presidente Wilson.  He listed his occupation as Medical Student and his father, Ignaz Weiss, is listed as nearest relative. 

I rapidly found more information about Soma, and started my own genealogy file for him.  I have more information to share on my academic genealogy as I look at those who influenced him, but that will have to be on another day.  In doing this reading over the weekend, I have learned so much about the social network of the people I work with, for there are so many other ties to explore.  The father of my mentor’s boss trained under Dr. Weiss as well.  🙂

All of this intrigues me  — the branches of my academic tree are just as fascinating as the branches of my biological tree. It really helps add context to my work environment to learn and understand some of this history.  

[1] Burkhart, Ford. “Dr. Jack Myers, 84, a Pioneer In Computer-Aided Diagnoses.” New York Times 22 Feb. 1998. 29 Sept. 2008 <>.

[2] Hollingsworth, William. Taking Care: The Legacy of Soma Weiss, Eugene Stead, and Paul Beeson. San Diego, Calif: Medical Education and Research Foundation, 1994.