Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

John Ruhräh, poliomyelitis pioneer and medical historian

Avi Ohry
Tel Aviv, Israel

The best sailors are those who have studied the charts and records of those who have sailed before.”
– John Ruhräh

John Ruhrah. From MedChi Archives Blog.

John Ruhräh was a pediatrician and medical historian born to German parents in Chillicothe, Ohio, on September 26, 1872. After completing  medical studies at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Baltimore in 1894, he became a clinical professor of pediatrics in Baltimore’s City Hospital. His list of original publications includes some thirty articles and several books on various aspects of pediatrics.1

His book on poliomyelitis was one of the first on that topic.2

In 1930, Ruhräh contracted polio himself.3,4 He rehabilitated in Warm Springs, Georgia, and wrote about the advantages of rehabilitation over the care most polio patients received at home.5 He returned to practice, remained active, and became a symbol of survivorship, much like his close friend, President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In a letter left for the Faculty of Medical & Chirurgical Faculty of the State of Maryland on February 18, 1923,6 Ruhräh wrote, “I have left most of my estate so that it will eventually go to the Faculty to be used in accordance with directions given in a memorandum filed with my will.” He also designed the plate on the wall of the library, with these lines:

They did not seem like books to him,
But Heroes, Martyrs, Saints – themselves
The things they told of, not mere books
Ranged grimly on the oaken shelves.

Ruhräh is also known for his books on the history of pediatrics7 and of medicine.8,9 He wrote a biography of Dr. William Osler in 1934, which was not published until 2015. He died on March 10, 1935, in his beloved town of Baltimore.


  1. Ockerbloom JM, ed. The Online Books Page: Online Books by John Ruhräh. https://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/book/lookupname?key=Ruhr%26auml%3Bh%2C%20John%2C%201872%2D1935.
  2. Ruhräh J and Mayer EE. Poliomyelitis in all its Aspects. Philadelphia; New York: Lea & Febiger, 1917.
  3. Obituary of John Ruhräh. BMJ, 1935;1:682.
  4. Ruhräh J. The Treatment of Polio in the Convalescent Stage. September 1931, The Polio Chronicle, Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation Archives, via: https://www.disabilitymuseum.org/dhm/lib/detail.html?id=983.
  5. Rogers, N. Polio Chronicles: Warm Springs and Disability Politics in the 30s. Asclepio. Revista de Historia de la Medicina y de la Ciencia, 2009, vol. LXI, no. 1.
  6. Ruhräh J. Copy of letter left for the Faculty. Bull Med Libr Assoc. 1936;24(4):179-80.
  7. Ruhräh J (Compiler, Editor). Pediatrics of the Past: An Anthology. New York: P.B. Hoeber, 1925 (contrib. by Fielding H. Garrison).
  8. Rosen G. The pediatrician as historian: John Ruhräh and Ernest Caulfield. Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 1977;51(2):188-201.
  9. Garrison FH. In memoriam. Dr John Ruhräh (1872-1935).
  10. Bulletin of the Institute of the History of Medicine,1935;3(5):400-2.

AVI OHRY, MD, is married with two daughters. He is Emeritus Professor of Rehabilitation Medicine at Tel Aviv University, the former director of Rehabilitation Medicine at Reuth Medical and Rehabilitation Center in Tel Aviv, and a member of The Lancet‘s Commission on Medicine & the Holocaust. He conducts award-winning research in neurological rehabilitation, bioethics, medical humanities and history, and on long-term effects of disability and captivity. He plays the drums with three jazz bands.

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