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Suzanne Fleischman, UC Berkeley French professor who also explored the language of illness, dies at age 51
04 Feb 2000

By Kathleen Maclay, Public Affairs

BERKELEY-- Suzanne Fleischman, an internationally recognized professor of French and Romance Philology at the University of California, Berkeley, has died after a long illness that spurred her to study and lecture extensively about the language of illness in Western medicine.

Fleischman, 51, died Wednesday at Alta Bates Medical Center in Berkeley. She had taught at UC Berkeley since 1975, developing a reputation that drew graduate students from around the world who were eager for the opportunity to work with her.

David Hult, chair of UC Berkeley's French Department, said the Chicago native earned worldwide renown as a foremost linguist in French and Romance languages. She was also well known for work focusing on the medieval period and the history of French and other Romance languages.

Fleischman wrote and edited five books and dozens of articles on topics ranging from the technical analysis of linguistic structures, to the evolution of the Romance languages and applications of linguistic theory, to the study of fiction.

Colleagues and friends recalled Fleischman as an athletic, joyful, witty friend and a dedicated professor. She had in the past several years devoted her energies to studying and understanding and clarifying the relationships between language and disease, after being diagnosed in 1993 with myelodysplastic syndrome, a blood disorder known as MDS. She recently learned she had developed leukemia.

"Her innate curiosity and intellectual drive led her to become an expert on medical literature devoted to the disease (MDS), and more importantly, on the language of illness that prevails in the medical community and its impact on the patient," Hult said.

"Suzanne dealt with the disease by making it another focus of research," said longtime friend and French Department colleague Françoise Sorgen-Goldschmidt.

Fleischman was working on a book examining the pervasiveness of the military metaphor in the language of medicine and illness. In describing the project, she wrote of the significance to physicians and patients the way "doctors are described as the fighters, technologies are weapons, action is a virtue, and disease is the enemy."

People with illnesses are no longer the focus of medicine, Fleischman wrote, "but merely the clinical stage on which the main protagonists of the drama - the doctors and the disease - battle it out."

She offered a course last spring on language and medicine, collaborating with UC Berkeley's Townsend Center for the Humanities and with colleagues in the UC Berkeley Linguistics Department.

Last December, she gave a lecture on language and medicine at a hematology conference at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. She was hospitalized soon after returning from the trip.

During her career, Fleischman earned numerous honors. They included Fulbright, Guggenheim, American Council of Learned Societies and French government fellowships, as well as a 1995 medal of honor for research from the University of Helsinki. She was invited to deliver the Zaharoff lectures in French studies at Oxford University last year.

Fleischman earned her PhD in Romance Philology, which is the history of the Romance languages, at UC Berkeley in 1975. She had received her master's degree in Spanish from UC Berkeley in 1971 and a bachelor's degree in Spanish from the University of Michigan in 1969.

She is survived by her father, Edward Fleischman of San Diego. Graveside services were held at a Richmond cemetery on Friday. Memorial plans are pending.


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