5 Roxburgh Street, Drs Sam & Julius Lipetz’ GP Practice

We are standing here in front of a plaque to the Nobel laureate, Peter Higgs, who worked in this street. But it is on the wrong house. When Peter came to Edinburgh in 1960, he had his office at No3, next door. The plaque that ought to be here is one to the Lipetz brothers, Sam and Julius, whose GP practice was here at No5. At that time, this area included hostels for the down-and-outs to the north of the practice in the Cowgate and overcrowd housing, insanitary living conditions, poverty and unemployment in the now demolished streets to the south and east of their practice. And there is a connection here. When Peter first came to Edinburgh he enquired of his colleagues as to which GP he should choose and was told that Max Born (another eminent physicist) had been a patient of Julius Lipetz next door. According to Peter, Julius features in correspondence between Max Born and Einstein, where Max Born commented that his GP had a naïve admiration of the Soviet Union.

Sam and Julie
Sam & Julie Lipetz. With kind permission of the family.

Sam, the older of the two brothers, was born in 1897 and educated at George Heriot’s School in Lauriston Place. He went on to Edinburgh University to study medicine although his studies were interrupted by the first world war. In 1918, he returned to complete his studies and, after graduation in 1922, he joined a two-partner practice in the Pleasance. Then, when his partner retired in 1926, he was joined by his younger brother Julius (known to everyone as Julie). Julie was born in 1903 and educated at the Royal High School, then located in Regent Road. Julie also went on to Edinburgh University to study medicine and graduated in 1925. The partnership between Sam (‘the wee ‘un’) and Julie (‘the big ‘un’) continued until Julie’s sudden death, at the age of 69, in 1972. Shortly before Julie died, the building was sold to Edinburgh University and the practice moved into premises about half a mile away in Rankeillor Street. Sam died, at the age of 83, in 1980.

Solomon Lipetz, grandfather of Sam and Julie. With kind permission of the family.

Sam and Julie’s father, Lazarus Lipetz, was born in Lithuania and came to Edinburgh at the age of 16 in 1888. Their mother, Annie Yoffe, was born in Poland but was brought to Sunderland with her parents when she was a baby, moving to Edinburgh when she got married. On the death of his mother, Lazarus Lipetz returned to Lithuania to bring his father Solomon Lipetz to Edinburgh. Lazarus was a small-time salesman who started off selling postcards from a barrow and subsequently acquired a small newsagent’s shop in the Lawnmarket.  He must have been quite successful because he acquired two more shops but his success was short-lived and he ended up bankrupt. His debts had to be paid off by his son Sam.

Sam and Julie were both remarkable characters. Neither Sam nor Julie were ‘religious’ and only attended synagogue services very occasionally. However, being ‘Jewish’ was very much part of their identities and there was hardly a communal activity, charitable or social, in which they didn’t play an active part. They were stalwart members of the Edinburgh Jewish Literary Society, prominent members of the Edinburgh Jewish Dramatic Society when it was active in the inter-war period, trustees of the Edinburgh Jewish Board of Guardians, which provided help for Jews who had fallen on hard times. They were both committed socialists, founder members of the Socialist Medical Association and the Medical Practitioners Union and, for most of their lives, of the Communist Party, although Sam let his membership lapse after the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956.

However, it is probably as exemplary GPs that Sam and Julie made their greatest mark. They were deeply moved by the inhuman living conditions on which many of their patients had to live and were early advocates of the NHS. In fact, they remained utterly committed to it for the whole of their lives. Anecdotes about their kindness and their commitment to their patients, who included many members of the university community who worked nearby[1] as well as those who lived in the area abound, and their early commitment (before it became fashionable) to multi-disciplinary intervention with health visitors, nurses and social workers was long ahead of its time. When Edinburgh University set up its Department of General Practice, they were invited to become part-time members of staff and were exemplary teachers of medical students.

Sam and Julie Lipetz were both, to use Robbie Burns’ phrase ‘lads o’ pairts’, gifted ‘all-rounders’ who rose from humble origins. They were stirred by poverty and injustice and moved to do what they could to ameliorate these evils. Thus, for example, they took a number of refugees from Nazi Germany into their homes. They loved the profession of medicine and cared deeply about their patients. In the early days, they would deliver loaves of bread and bottles of milk to their patients on their house calls, and throughout their careers, they regularly visited their patients at home or in hospital ‒ on their own initiative ‒ to ensure that their needs were being met. They yearned for a new world order but were, at the same time, fiercely proud of the Jewish heritage.

[1] Among their patients were two Nobel Prize winners, both of who were Professors of Physics at Edinburgh University: Professor Max Born, who won his Nobel Prize for Physics in 1954 and Professor Peter Higgs, who won his in 2013.