JMM Insights, July 2014: Where Culture Meets Science
This week I have invited curator Karen Falk to share her recent research for the exhibit Jews, Health and Healing. The exhibit is scheduled to open at JMM in the fall of 2015. I think you will agree that Karen has uncovered some compelling insights.
Our upcoming exhibition about Jews and medicine has required a revolution in my consciousness, one that has brought me new awareness of the medical professions, the history of medicine, and the impact of medicine on Jewish identity. So a request to share some insights gained while working on this exciting project was a welcome assignment.
Perhaps the most enduring lesson I learned—to my surprise, I admit— was just how absorbing it is to study the history of medicine! Other surprises, from each section of the exhibition, include:
Caliphs, princesses, popes and saints.
Many people have noted with a sense of irony that even while Jews were persecuted in medieval and renaissance Europe, rulers seeking medical advice often turned to Jewish physicians. Turns out there’s a lot of fact underpinning this conventional wisdom. Baltimore ophthalmologist Harry Friedenwald thoroughly documented this history in his collection of books and manuscripts produced by Jewish physicians from the fourteenth through the nineteenth centuries. Among them: a 14th century manuscript of works by Isaac Israeli (c. 850-950; yes, he is said to have lived 100 years!), who was court physician to the Fatimite Caliph Obaid Allah; several works by Maimonides, philosopher and physician to Saladin, first sultan of Egypt; a full set of the 700 case histories written up by the 16th century physician Amatus Lusitanus, who treated Pope Julius III but spent his life outrunning the Inquisition; a letter from the physician Felipe Rodriguez (Elijah) de Luna Montalto to his patient, Queen Marie (de Medicis) of France (wife of King Louis XIII); even a 1487 woodcut depicting a 4th century scene in which the Jewish physician Ephraim attends the ailing St. Basil. Friedenwald’s collection became the first-ever exhibition about Jews and medicine, shown at Johns Hopkins University in 1943.
“Never admit more than five Jews…”
The number of Jewish doctors in Europe in the early twentieth century was astounding. Almost half the physicians in Berlin were Jewish; in Vienna, it was about 60%, and in Warsaw it was 70%. As the children of immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe began to enter colleges in the first decades of the twentieth century, similarly high percentages were aiming for medical school. All across the country, university and medical school deans were alarmed, and began to put into place measures that limited Jewish enrollment. The University of Michigan, for example, used interviews to determine a candidate’s “personal acceptability and magnetism” (many Jews failed this test). Many schools determined Jewish heritage based on last names, and when that failed because of the growing practice of Americanizing one’s name, they asked for the applicant’s mother’s maiden name. What is perhaps most surprising about this situation is the response of some Jews. Milton Charles Winternitz, the Jewish dean of Yale Medical School, was complicit. “Never admit more than five Jews, take only two Italian Catholics, and take no blacks at all,” Winternitz told his admissions officers. Baltimore Hebrew Congregation’s Rabbi Morris Lazaron did a national study of medical school admissions practices in 1934, and concluded that Jews were admitted at a rate of about 20% of the student bodies. He felt he had documented discrimination, but advised accommodating the quotas. He never published his report, afraid it would make things worse. Leon Sachs, longtime head of the Baltimore Jewish Council, negotiated with both Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland medical schools in the 1940s and 50s over the numbers of Jewish students admitted each year. Documents in the JMM collection show that Hopkins claimed that 75% of its applications came from Jewish students. The university began with a 10% quota on Jewish admissions, and thanks to Sachs, raised it first to 14% and then to 17% in subsequent years. [Credit goes to Antero Pietila for making these documents public in his book Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City (2010, Ivan Dee, Inc.)]
“Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews.”
Jewish hospitals surprise people today, possibly because the maintenance of a hospital seems like a daunting project for a tiny minority community. They were founded by necessity. As places of danger and death throughout most of the nineteenth century, hospitals were the stamping grounds of missionaries hoping to save the souls of the sick and dying and Jewish patients were their prime targets. Baltimore’s Hebrew Hospital and Asylum (now Sinai Hospital and part of Lifebridge Health, a sponsor of our exhibition) was built in 1868, one of many founded in cities across the country to alleviate this pervasive problem. The practice of proselytizing in hospitals was global and persistent. Henrietta Szold and the women of Hadassah founded Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem in 1902 as a specific response to this issue.
“They wanted to make ladies of us.”
The alumni of Sinai Hospital’s training program for nurses, which closed in 1975, have been valued supporters of the JMM, sharing memories and donating uniforms, caps, tools, photos, and documents from their years as students and on the job. We were completely agog, however, when they brought in an elaborate silver tea set, with matching candelabra. How was this unexpected set of objects part of a nursing curriculum? “Tea” was held every Friday afternoon. “They wanted to make ladies of us,” Bobbie Horwitz told us. It appears that Jews—along with most Americans—had very different ideas about the ways in which men and women could be involved in medicine. Parents were sometimes hesitant to allow their daughters to go to nursing school. “My older sister broke them down. She was the first to become a nurse,” Myra Framm told us. Young women might face harassment in the workplace. Toby Mower recalled, “The doctors used to kid around with the new nurses that were rotating through the operating room: ‘Oh would you run to central supply and get me a fallopian tube?’ and we would run off to the central supply to get these fallopian tubes. They would have a laugh and we would wind up being embarrassed.”
Garcia da Orta: Converso, physician, plant hunter.
Born in Portugal just a few years after the Jews were expelled from Spain, Garcia da Orta was a Converso physician in Lisbon and professor of medicine at the Lisbon University. As the Inquisition in Portugal became more repressive, he signed on as a ship’s doctor with the Portuguese navy and soon found himself in India, where he began a thriving medical practice, and learned about the curative properties of the sub-continent’s botanicals. His book, Conversations on the simples, drugs and medicinal substances of India (1563) introduced many new remedies to the European material medica. The Inquisition finally caught up with him and his family. Da Orta died in 1568, but his sister was burned as a heretic in 1569, and da Orta’s remains were exhumed and burned in 1580. Still, he is remembered as “the most illustrious representative of the Portuguese spirit in the natural sciences.”
Doctor, scientist, entrepreneur.
Dr. Morris Abramovitz came to Baltimore from Lithuania in 1901, had completed his medical studies at University of Maryland by 1906, and was a special student taking classes at Johns Hopkins Medical School in 1907. He opened a practice in East Baltimore, tending to a diverse immigrant neighborhood as well as sailors on leave in Baltimore’s harbor. Although a practitioner with a humble neighborhood practice, Abramovitz represented the scientific sprit of his time. Observing that many sailors among his patients suffered from syphilis, he was intrigued with the opportunities and problems of a new chemical treatment from Germany, known as Salvarsan. Unstable and difficult to prepare as a solution for injection, a more stable compound called Neo-salvarsan came out in 1912. Neo-salvarsan was less effective against the disease, however. Abramovitz developed and marketed an apparatus to administer both drugs at once, minimizing the problems of preparing Salvarsan while boosting the effectiveness of its replacement with some of the original. Side effects were unpleasant, and the treatment was replaced by penicillin in the 1940s.
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