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Rock Sleyster (1879-1942)
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Rock Sleyster Scholarship | Memorial | Encyclopedia | Familytree us1

Rock Sleyster, M.D., Psychiatry’s First President of
the American Medical Association

Am J Psychiatry 161:436, March 2004
© 2004 American Psychiatric Association 

Images in Psychiatry 

by Darold A. Treffert, M.D. 

Of the 158 presidents of the American Medical Association (AMA) to date, there has been only one who was a psychiatrist. Rock Sleyster, M.D., was installed as 93rd president of the AMA on May 16, 1939. At that time, Dr. Sleyster was medical director of the Milwaukee Sanitarium in Wisconsin, a post he held from 1919 until his death in 1942. 

Dr. Sleyster was active in organized medicine early in his career and held the offices of president of the Wisconsin State Medical Society, editor of the Wisconsin Medical Journal, AMA delegate, vice-speaker of the AMA House of Delegates, chairman of the AMA Board of Trustees, and then president of the AMA, beginning in 1939.

His inaugural address was titled "The Mind of Man and His Security" and vividly pointed out the problems — and the promise — of medicine and psychiatry in that era: 47% of the hospital beds in America were filled with persons with mental diseases, general paresis was just being brought under control, and the treatment of dementia praecox was beginning to see the promise of insulin and metrazol shock therapy (1).

Beyond those clinical matters, Dr. Sleyster was concerned about the maintenance of individual initiative versus governmental protections, musing that while the loss of character and individual initiative may not be pathological in the sense that mental defects are pathological, such loss of individual responsibility was a menace not only to the individual but to the nation and mankind as well. Dr. Sleyster had an intense interest in anthropology and published works in that area. He collected rare medical books dating back to 1550, including some of the earliest classic first editions in psychiatry. 

In a memoriam, a colleague characterized Dr. Sleyster as "a gentle man; thoughtful, wise, kindly, genial and modest, with a rich sense of humor and scintillating with warmth of personality" (from an unpublished "In Memoriam" by L.H. Zeigler). He died on March 7, 1942. "He had been in his office the preceding day, seeing patients, and had been happy and cheerful—his usual self (Zeigler)."

His spouse, Clara, established a memorial fund in his honor through the AMA Foundation, and each year approximately 20 scholarships of $2,500 each are awarded to senior medical students based on demonstrated interest in psychiatry, scholarship, and financial need. These individuals are then designated Rock Sleyster Scholars for a 1-year period. In that sense, Dr. Sleyster’s memory and efforts live on.

Address reprint requests to Dr. Treffert, Behavioral Health Services, St. Agnes Hospital, 430 East Division St., Fond du Lac, WI 54935; (e-mail). Photo courtesy of AMA Archives. 

 1. Sleyster R: The mind of man and his security: president’s address. JAMA 1939; 112:2003–2006 


Med Student Fellowships & Other Awards
Rock Sleyster Memorial Scholarship

Sponsoring Agency:American Medical Assocation

Description:This fund provides scholarships to be awarded to U.S. citizens enrolled in accredited American or Canadian medical schools. Scholarships are given annually to assist needy and deserving students studying medicine who aspire to specialize in psychiatry. All nominees must be rising seniors. The award is $2500 Deadline: May 1.


Rock Sleyster Memorial Scholarship
In honor of her husband, Rock Sleyster, M.D., President of the American Medical Association from 1939-1940, Clara Sarah Sleyster and the AMA Education and Research Foundation established the Rock Sleyster Memorial Scholarship. Students planning to specialize in Psychiatry who are U.S. citizens, rising seniors, and demonstrating financial need may be nominated. Each school is allowed to nominate one student based on the size of their graduating class for this $2,500 scholarship.

If you will be a fourth-year medical student at the University of Arizona College of Medicine for 2002-2003 who has applied for financial aid and plans to specialize in psychiatry, contact Tammie Bassford, M.D. to request consideration. The application for the 2002-2003 scholarship is expected to be received in May 2002.



Rock Sleyster (1879 - 1942)
yellow rule
From 1916 to 1920, Dr. Sleyster, who was born in Waupun and received his M.D. in 1902 from the University of Illinois, served as Chief of Extension's Bureau of Post-graduate Medical Instruction.

Prior to this he was in private practice for a number of years at Kiel and Appleton, but also was prison physician at Waupun State Prison, Medical Director, from 1909 to 1919, of the Central State Hospital for the Criminal Insane in Waupun and from 1919 to his death he was the Medical Director of the Milwaukee Sanitarium in Wauwatosa, which became a model institution devoted to the diagnosis and care of nervous and mental conditions.

During World War I, he was a Major in the Medical Corps of the U. S. Army and served as medical aide to Emanuel L. Philipp, Governor of Wisconsin. Dr. Sleyster was active in and held offices in the Wisconsin State Medical Society and the American Medical Association, and was on the Board of Directors of the Wisconsin Anti-Tuberculosis Association.

He was unanimously elected to every office which he occupied, having never been opposed by any other candidate. From 1918 to 1923 he was editor of the Wisconsin Medical Journal and in 1934 he was given the Council Award, the gold seal of the State Medical Society of Wisconsin, for "devotion to the individual needs of the mentally sick." In May of 1939, Sleyster became the first Wisconsin doctor to be president of the American Medical Association. In recognition of his contributions to medical education, the degree of LL.D. was conferred upon him by the Marquette University School of Medicine in 1941.

His advice was constantly sought by medical friends from far and near, and he lent a ready ear to such requests, flattered, but pleased. At the time of his death he was known as one of the nation's leading psychiatrists.

Patek, Arthur J.
"Dr. Rock Sleyster." College News Notes : 806-807.

"Rock Sleyster, M. D." [editorial] The Wisconsin Medical Journal 41, no. 4 (April 1942) : 320-321, 339-340.

"Rock Sleyster, M. D." in A History of the American Medical Association 1847 to 1947, by Morris Fishbein. Philadelphia, Penn. Saunders. 1947. p. 808-809.

"Sleyster, Rock." Dictionary of American Medical Biography. Westport, Conn. Greenwood Press. v. 2, p. 685-686.

"Sleyster, Dr. Rock." Encyclopedia of Biography. p. 187-188.  (13-2-2004)

SIU School of Medicine Office of Student Affairs

Rock Sleyster Memorial Scholarship

Southern Illinois University School of Medicine may nominate one student annually for this scholarship award.

Amount: $2,500

Qualifications or Criteria for Applying:

  • Must be senior medical student

  • Must demonstrate an interest in psychiatry

  • Must demonstrate financial need

Application Deadline: Contact the Director of Financial Aid before May 1st at

To request further information contact:

Rock Sleyster Memorial Scholarship
American Medical Association
515 North State Street
Chicago, IL 60610

From the Magazine | Medicine

"Almost Revolutionary"

Posted Monday, Sep. 26, 1938

In Washington last July, Josephine Roche, former head of Federal health activities, told members of a National Health Conference that the Government proposed to embark on a ten-year public health program, to appropriate $850,000,000 annually for the job (TIME, Aug. 1). Lay delegates heartily approved, but officials of the American Medical Association bitterly objected to "centralization of control of medical service by any State agency."

Last week 100 members of the House of Delegates, supreme A. M. A. body, met in extraordinary session with 400 officials of local medical organizations in the Red Lacquer Room of Chicago's Palmer House. Purpose: consideration of the proposed Federal health program. Dr. Harrison H. Shoulders of Nashville, Tenn., speaker of the House, Dr. Irvin Abell of Louisville, Ky., president of the Association, and Dr. Rock Sleyster of Wauwatosa, Wis., president-elect, exhorted the delegates. All three opposed "political control," reiterated the A. M. A.'s desire to "benefit the people." Said President Abell, referring to the National Health Conference: "Without calling the organized medical profession . . . into conference, a vast plan affecting health and medical care has been proposed to the people."

Speaker Shoulders read the recommendations of the National Health Conference, assigned a committee of the House to consider each proposal separately. 'The committee adjourned for two days. When they reappeared they brought, contrary to expectations, no plan for war with the Administration, but a conciliatory program, in substantial agreement with that of the National Health Conference. Proposals: 1) The health of impoverished persons should be protected by use of Federal and State funds when necessary; 2) A Department of Health should be established with 'a physician as Cabinet member; 3) Public health, maternal and child welfare service should be expanded; 4) Better use should be made of existing hospital facilities and new buildings should be constructed only where necessary; 5) Compulsory health insurance is undesirable, would lead to "political control and manipulation," but hospital service insurance and cash indemnity insurance policies for patients suffering from prolonged illnesses are highly desirable, as is compensation of workers for loss of wages during illness. Local medical societies should cooperate with the Federal Government, organize local community service agencies for taking care of the sick with Federal funds.

Smooth as clockwork, with no argument, the House unanimously approved the proposals. Speaker Sleyster then ap pointed a committee of seven to confer with Federal authorities. After two swift days of unprecedented action the meeting adjourned, amid cries of "progressive," "almost revolutionary." Said Editor Morris Fishbein, tremendously delighted with the finesse and harmony of A. M. A. dele gates: "Many people will be surprised at the progressive action of the delegates. Of course I am not. I helped to work it out."

From the Sep. 26, 1938 issue of TIME magazine

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