Jews in Medicine

Two Loves

Review by Amos Lassen

Dr. Ronald Eisenberg brings two of his great loves, Judaism and Medicie together in “Jews in Medicine” in which he focuses on the contributions made by Jews over time to the medical profession. He shares the history of

More than 450 individual Jewish physicians who he divides by region and area of specialization, “all within a historical context—from Talmudic times to the modern era, from Islamic and Christian lands to the spread of Jewish communities in Europe after the Spanish Inquisition.” There is a large section devoted to the modern era that focuses on European and American physicians and includes Jewish Nobel Prize winners. Included is a description of physicians who were leaders in the Zionist movement and those who contributed to the development of medicine in the State of Israel.

I doubt that there are any American Jews who grew up at the same that I did who are not aware of the importance of the Jewish doctor. For Jewish parents, having a son or daughter who is a doctor is a sign of great achievement. We grew up hearing over and over again how important and pervasive the medical profession is within modern Jewish culture. (And that a PhD is not a real doctor).

Ronald Eisenberg is a medical doctor and Professor of Radiology at Harvard Medical School and radiologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, has submerged himself into this  fascinating subject and he gives us details  about Jews and medicine. The book is encyclopedic in scope with profiles of over 400 Jewish physicians, psychologists, scientists and other medical professionals. We have short biographies of their life and information about their medical accomplishments. Dr. Eisenberg pays careful attention to history, both Jewish and secular since it is backdrop for the rise of medicine. We read that the end of the 18th-century, the age of specialization of clinical medicine started. Because science was advancing so rapidly alone with medical discoveries, a physician  was unable to take care of it all and medical specialization began.

Before this many physicians worked in all fields.  Men such as 15th-century Yuceff Faquin and Abraham Zacuto, whose work on cartography and astronomy revolutionized ocean navigation. With specialization, Jewish physicians, who were able to bypass the quota system, et al. and got into medical schools were still excluded from the mainstream areas of internal medicine and general surgery and so they went to the then less popular clinical specialties that did not attract their non-Jewish colleagues, such as ophthalmology, dermatology, neurology, and psychiatry.

In the Talmud, it says that The books quotes the well-known Talmudic staying that “the best of physicians are destined to go to hell”. There are many different takes on this and what it means. Dr. Eisenberg “quotes the most common explanation that it refers to physicians who place all of their healing powers solely within themselves, and don’t not acknowledge a higher power.”

Dr. Eisenberg includes wonderful little stories and anecdotes making this book both fun and educational and we never really lose sight at how Jews entering the profession were treated yet once they were accepted it was generally a good deal easier.

We read that entry into the medical profession was highly restricted to Jews. In Europe, almost all of those who wanted to attend medical school found that unless they renounced their faith and were baptized, they could not attend university. A number of those ultimately and sadly, placed professional aspirations before faith. Here in America, there were very limited quotas for Jews in medical schools and  these quotas led to the creation of Jewish hospitals. At its peak, there were about 113 Jewish hospitals in the United States. Today, there are about 22 that are still in operation and we understand that the decline in Jewish hospitals is a direct result of the quotas no longer being enforced.

Many doctors fled Germany and Europe during World War II because they were not allowed to work under Nazi rule. Many came to the United States, South America, England and Israel, where they flourished and  even made live-saving discoveries and inventions.
Among Jewish contributions to medicine, we have the discovery of aspirin, Novocain, stopping blindness in infants due to oxygen therapy, to discoveries of vaccinations for Polio and much more. Vaccinations are the greatest public health discovery in the history of science, and the Jewish contributions in that area are large.

The book is written for everyone from the lay person to the scholar and is not only a delightful read but one that is also full of surprises.


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