Strangers and Healers:
The Jewish Immigrant Body and Health Care’s Role in the American Assimilation Experience
by Alan M. Kraut, professor of history at American University
Medical school discrimination escalated as the number of Jewish applicants grew. In 1934, the Association of American Medical Colleges estimated that more than 60 percent of the 33,000 applications submitted that year were from Jews. A Harvard Medical School officer described himself as feeling “overwhelmed by the number of Jewish lads who are applying for admission.”
How did those who barred the door to Jewish medical applicants manage the task? An initial pass through the application identified Jewish names. Personal interviews allowed admissions officers to see the faces behind the names, as they sought to identify those Semitic in appearance. Eventually, applications required a photograph and answers to questions concerning religion and place of birth of father and mother. When Jewish groups raised objections to the question concerning religion, the schools substituted questions about the “racial origin” of the applicant, the mother’s maiden name, and whether the applicant had ever changed his or her name.
At some medical schools, the “obstacle” was not the professed religion, but the manner and style of immigrants. One official cited the son of a “recently immigrated” Russian Jewish family, who was deemed “intensively aggressive and presents other personality difficulties.” Another sought to exclude students “who were born in Europe, or whose parents have recently migrated from Europe” and who “are apt to be an entirely different type, sometimes radical, sometimes asocial, often unstable.”
Some Jewish medical school applicants remembered for the rest of their lives how they were told that the door to a particular medical school was closed because of their identity. In the early 1930s, the University of Pennsylvania medical school dean told Arthur Bernstein that although he had received his undergraduate degree from that institution, “we took in the ten Jewish boys that we always take in and that is our quota.” The dean advised him to “go to Germany, France, or Switzerland” if he wanted to go to medical school. A decade later, three of every four non-Jewish students were accepted by the University of Pennsylvania, but only one of every thirteen Jewish students.
Rabbi Morris Lazaron, who advocated an aggressive approach to assimilation among Jews in the United States, feared that the onslaught of Jewish medical school applicants might result in a more general antisemitic backlash. He conducted a survey to see how medical school deans felt about the young applicants, sending questionnaires to sixty-five medical schools. He received forty-four responses and from these drew the somewhat problematic conclusion that “while there is limitation of Jewish enrollment [usually through quotas] there is no antisemitism involved in the admission of Jewish students to medical school.”[i] The responses were candid and revealing. Some deans feared the public perception that the admission of so many Jewish students would make medicine a Jewish-dominated field, a faint echo of what European fascist propaganda often said about the presence of Jews in particular professions during the 1930s.
Other responses exposed a perceived cultural divide, suggesting that Jewish medical students were not adequately assimilated and that those of Eastern European heritage, especially, lacked the genteel education and refined manners of their non-Jewish classmates. Dr. C.C. Bass, the dean at Tulane University, said that medical school teachers thought Jewish students had a “disagreeable manner and attitude in . . . classes” and were “less acceptable to patients with whom they come in contact,” though he conceded, “Some of the most distinguished members of our faculty are Jews. Some of our best students are Jews. Some of our most distinguished alumni are Jews.” Bass did not specify whether the latter were of German-Jewish heritage or the less desirable Eastern Europeans of more recent arrival. Similar complaints about manners and comportment were often leveled at Jews seeking faculty appointments or upward mobility as department chairs. As historian of medicine Leon Sokoloff noted, “A concern with personality can be a cloak for prejudice.”
Find Professor Kraut’s complete essay in the Beyond Chicken Soup: Jews and Medicine in America exhibit’s companion catalog, available for purchase through the Jewish Museum of Maryland’s museum shop “Esther’s Place.” For more information call 410-732-6400 x221 or email shop manager Tucker Hager at firstname.lastname@example.org.