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Orenstein Lecture Background

An inaugural lecture, held in 1962 at the inception of the Adler Museum of Medicine, was delivered by Major General Orenstein under the auspices of the Adler Museum and the Medical Graduates Association. Since that date, 38 lectures have been held. In 1974 the name was changed to the AJ Orenstein Memorial lecture to perpetuate the memory of the late Major General Orenstein who died on 7 July 1972 and to commemorate the part he played in the establishment of the medical services in the mining industry. This was done at the suggestion and decision of the Chamber of Mines of South Africa. In this and subsequent years, the lecture was arranged in alternative years by the Chamber of Mines and the Adler Museum of Medicine.

Major General Alexander Jeremiah Orenstein was an American physician who was invited to South Africa by General William C Gorgas who he worked with for seven years. Dr Orenstein had done pioneering work in the combating of pneumonia during the construction of the Panama Canal and attempted, without success, to introduce into this country the same means of containing the disease, namely separated, low density quarters for workers as opposed to high density 'compounds'. By 1915 he had begun the remodeling of the sleeping accommodation in the 'compound' rooms. He helped curb the devastating Spanish influenza epidemic that hit Kimberley just after the end of World War I and saved the lives of many citizens.

Once the epidemic passed he turned his energies to 'Health Services' in the mining industry. He soon established a 'department of sanitation' and set about revolutionising the appalling medical care and sanitation conditions prevalent in the mining industry at the time. He contributed to the redesign and layout of mine hospitals, the appointment of full time medical officers on the mines and the introduction of first-aid courses. He was so influential in the field of nursing that he has been accorded the well-deserved title: 'The father of black nursing' in South Africa.

He acted as an unpaid consultant to the Chamber of Mines and was socially recognised as the supreme authority on the health of mineworkers.

As the age of 77 he accepted the post of director of the newly established Pneumoconiosis Research Unit while continuing to serve as medical consultant to Rand Mines. Three years later, Dr Orenstein, now in his 80s, acted as general secretary to the Pneumoconiosis Conference held at Wits and was praised by his peers for his 'organisational genius'. At the age of 92 he was still translating reports from Russian into English and maintaining an active interest in the latest medical research.

He was a founder member and first vice-president of the Mine Medical Officers' Association and sat on the Prevention of Accidents Committee, now the Mine Safety Division, of the Chamber of Mines for a period of 42 years.

He received many military awards for his services in the medical corps. He was also presented with numerous civilian awards such as the Panama Canal Service Medal and the Order of the Crown for his services in the Belgian Congo. Perhaps his greatest accolade was receiving the gilt emblem to the Voluntary Medical Service Medal from the Red Cross Society. He was awarded the gold medal of the Institution of Mining and Metallurgy, London, the highest honour to be bestowed on men who had served the mining industry.

It would seem he was not the easiest of men to get along with because he had a 'commanding and strong personality, aided by drive and determination.' He could not tolerate inefficiency and yet it was said that he had the kindness and readiness to give of himself and his sound judgment to those in need or in trouble. He was modest without being humble, just as he was strong without being overbearing.

He sought relaxation in music and reading, and was deeply interested in the theatre. He was one of the founder members of the Johannesburg Repertory Players and the Alexander Theatre. Other interests included motoring and flying, and he was one of the founders of the Light Plane Club.