Author: Sally Monroe, Museum Blog

A Note from the Library: Dr. Louis Shapiro, International Man of Medicine

Published by Sally Monroe.

When we catalogue texts at the Thorek Manuscripts and Rare Books Collection, one of the pieces of information we are sure to record is a book’s provenance. Often, this means looking for the name of a donor. Recently, it came to my attention that one of the most prolific donors to the collection was a man by the name of Dr. Louis Schapiro. We have catalogued at least 30 of his books so far; titles range from Gilbert Rule’s Two Sermons Preached at the Meeting of the Council of George Heriot’s Hospital at Edinburgh (1695) to Antoine-Francois de Fourcoy’s four-volume A General System of Chemical Knowledge; and its Application to the Phenomena of Nature and Art (1804). We even have his copy of Richard Brookes’ The Natural History of Fishes and Serpents (1763). Clearly, Schapiro was a prolific collector with wide-ranging interests. But what was this man’s story?

two sermons

Image from Two Sermons Preached at the Meeting of the Council of George Heriot’s Hospital at Edinburgh (1695)

As it turns out, Louis Schapiro led a life that was in many ways similar to that of our Museum and Library’s founder, Dr. Max Thorek. Like Thorek, Schapiro immigrated to the Midwestern United States from Eastern Europe in the last decade of the 19th century. The Schapiro family settled in Milwaukee, which at the time was experiencing rapid suburban growth. After high school, Schapiro attended the prestigious George Washington University Medical School in Washington, D.C. and graduated in 1907.

From there, Schapiro’s life became something of an international adventure. Just one year after receiving his diploma from George Washington University, he was appointed “Assistant Surgeon of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey.” The United Sates Coast and Geodetic Surgery was a federal agency that was surveying the waters around the Philippine Islands and Puerto Rico (both of which the United States had recently taken under control) in the early 20th century. Schapiro was stationed aboard the Fathomer, a small steamer, in the Philippines. It is unclear what his duties as Assistant Surgeon on the Fathomer were, but he likely tended to the other passengers as well as other U.S. government workers on shore. Whatever the case, he must have impressed his superiors; after two years on the Fathomer, Schapiro was promoted to the position of Medical Inspector for the U.S. Health Department in Manila, where he “greatly improved the health and living conditions of the district.”

After seven years in the Philippines, Schapiro was appointed to the International Health Board of the Rockefeller Foundation. The Foundation had been officially established in the previous year, 1913, and had several philanthropic arms ranging from medicine to social science. In its earliest years, the International Health Board, “an organization devoted to modernizing public health worldwide,” was on an ambitious mission to eradicate hookworm from the globe. They focused first on Central and South America, and, accordingly, Schapiro was sent to Costa Rica. There, and eight years later when he moved to Panama, he not only led enthusiastic public health campaigns, but also collected a great deal of local lava sculpture and pottery. Perhaps he was amassing a large medical book collection as well.


Image of Fathomer

Somewhere in between his international travels, Schapiro found time to earn a doctorate in public health from Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health in 1923, get married, and father a child, Mark Schapiro. In 1929, Schapiro and several of his colleagues published Studies on Hookworm: Ascaris and Trichuris in Panama, Embodying the Results of the Researches of an Expedition to the Republic of Panama, May to September, 1926. The following August, the Rockefeller Foundation sent Schapiro to serve as a public health adviser for the Siamese government (in what is now Thailand). On February 4, 1932, Schapiro suffered a pulmonary embolism at his home in Bangkok and passed away.

 Louis Schapiro’s obituary describes him as a man of “industry, unusual tact, gentlemanly persistence, [and] patience.” He was “universally beloved,” so much so that the Siamese government posthumously declared him a prince. He was also demonstrably generous; he bequeathed his large collection of sculpture and pottery to Johns Hopkins University, which was valued at $65,000 in 1933 (that is just shy of half a million dollars in today’s economy.) And, happily, he donated at least 30 of his rare texts to Max Thorek. One wonders what other interesting stories these books might tell us about their former owner!
The Natural History of Fishes and Serpents

Image from Natural History of Fishes and Serpents


Cort, William et al. “Studies on Hookworm: Ascaris and Trichuris in Panama, Embodying the Results of the Researches of an Expedition to the Republic of Panama, May to September, 1926.” American Journal of Hygiene. 1929.

“Eradicating Hookworm.” The Rockefeller Foundation: A Digital History.

“Fathomer.” NOAA History.

“Late Dr. Schapiro’s Collection Goes to Johns Hopkins.” Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

“Rockefeller Foundation Archives.” Rockefeller Archive Center.

The Rockefeller Foundation Annual Report. New York City: The Rockefeller Foundation. 1932.

Sally Monroe is the current Collections Intern (Library) at IMSS and a graduate student in the Museum and Exhibition Studies program at University of Illinois at Chicago. She is interested in the intersection of cultural spaces and representations of pain.