Chicken Soup and Other Remedies: The Complicated History of Jews and Medicine

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Exploring an exhibit on American Jews and the practice of medicine at the Jewish Museum of Maryland.

By Paula Wasley


The exhibit features imagery that a doctor named Abramovitz used to market his “Combined Method” injections beginning in 1914. (Photo: Courtesy the Jewish Museum of Maryland)

Your bubbe was not the first to notice the restorative powers of chicken soup, a.k.a. “Jewish penicillin.” The Egyptian Jewish philosopher physician Maimonides prescribed the broth in the 12th century as a curative for respiratory illnesses — a recommendation that was backed up in 2000 by research at the University of Nebraska Medical Center showing that chicken soup can indeed slow inflammation associated with colds and the flu.

“Beyond Chicken Soup: Jews & Medicine in America” at the Jewish Museum of Maryland in Baltimore looks at the ways medicine has both defined and been defined by Jewish Americans. “We think of medicine as a scientific pursuit,” says Karen L. Falk, curator of the exhibit. “But social and cultural constructs shape the way medicine and health messages are delivered and received.”

Maimonides notwithstanding, the show focuses on the last 100 years of American medicine, the so-called golden age, touring many sites where Jewish culture and medicine intersect: Jewish hospitals that served as training grounds for Jewish doctors; the local drugstore, where Jewish pharmacists dispensed health advice along with fountain sodas; the neighborhood gym, where young Jewish immigrants embraced athleticism as they adapted to their new environment; and the laboratory, where heroes like Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin helped make Jews synonymous with medicine.

Jewish Doctors

The ideological battle over health and healing can be seen in a recreation of the early 20th-century library of Baltimore ophthalmologist Harry Friedenwald, who amassed one of the world’s largest collections of books and manuscripts tracing the medical achievements of Jews from the Middle Ages through the 1900s.

This elaborate history helped Friedenwald refute critics who cast new waves of Jewish immigrants as a literal and figurative plague on American society. Jewish achievement became a rallying point for Jewish pride. “While we cannot cure the ones afflicted with anti-Semitism, we can protect ourselves. For here the immunizing remedy is the development of the feelings of Jewish self-respect and Jewish honor,” he said in 1907.

“Never admit more than five Jews, take only two Italian Catholics, and take no blacks at all,” Milton Winternitz, the Jewish dean of Yale medical school from 1920 to 1935 famously told his admissions committee.

Among the highlights of this collection is a 14th-century codex containing chapters of the earliest known Hebrew work on medicine, the Sefer Asaph ha-Rofe, or “Book of Remedies.” Written between the 3rd and 7th century C.E., it outlined a code of conduct for Jewish physicians similar to the Hippocratic Oath, and was bound together with a manuscript by 10th-century Italian Jewish physician Sabbato Donnolo that detailed the medicinal uses of 120 plants. A 1777 work On the Diseases of the Jews by Elkan Isaac Wolf, intended as a guide to better health for German Jews, cautions against too many pastries. “Moses,” he wrote, “would have banned confectioners if they had lived in his day.”

It might even be asked if Jewish culture, in its rituals and sanitary laws, was particularly congenial to a medical view of life. This idea has developed into a popular strain of thought, characterized by historian Mitchell B. Hart as “Moses the microbiologist,” which reinterprets Hebrew rituals relating to diet, bathing, circumcision, and quarantine of the sick as laws of hygiene, informed by a prescient understanding of modern germ theory and disease transmission.

Even an interest in medicine itself has been portrayed as biologically determined. In his 1934 book Jewish Contributions to Medicine in America, medical historian Solomon Kagan wrote of “a definite racial trait … in the tendency of Jews to search for the obscure causes of the illnesses of mankind and to discover new measures for their prevention.”


Exercise at the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in Baltimore, circa 1911. (Photo: Courtesy of the Jewish Museum of Maryland)

This idea that medicine was a quintessentially Jewish calling added to its promise of social mobility and economic stability, and helped propel a disproportionate number of Jews toward the profession at the turn of the century.

But as the number of Jewish physicians and medical students grew, so too did discrimination. Education reforms that resulted in a sudden contraction in the number of American medical schools coincided with an influx of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, prompting fears that Jews would soon dominate the medical field. Starting in the 1920s medical schools began instituting quotas for Jewish students, in some cases with the support of more established Jewish physicians. “Never admit more than five Jews, take only two Italian Catholics, and take no blacks at all,” Milton Winternitz, the Baltimore-born Jewish dean of Yale medical school from 1920 to 1935 famously told his admissions committee. To screen out Jewish applicants, medical schools required personal interviews, photographs, or information about applicants’ religion or mother’s maiden name. Still, in 1934, the Association of American Medical Colleges estimated that more than 60 percent of applicants to medical school were Jewish.

“Too many of our Jewish students are going into medicine,” Baltimore Rabbi Morris Lazaron wrote that same year. Concerned that the inundation of Jewish applicants would stoke anti-Semitism, Lazaron canvassed 65 medical schools about their proportion and impressions of Jewish medical students. “Beyond Chicken Soup” displays many of the responses he received from medical school deans, offering frank opinions about how Jewish students compared with their Gentile peers. Some sought to distinguish between Jewish students whose families had been in the United States for several generations — usually of German extraction — and those who had immigrated more recently from Eastern Europe. According to one respondent from the University of Michigan Medical School, the latter were “apt to be an entirely different type, sometimes radical, sometimes asocial, often unstable.”

“In the beginning of the 20th century, there was the idea of a physical basis to Jewishness. Now that idea is growing again, in a new way, with a new basis.”

Obstacles for would-be doctors didn’t end with medical schools. Jewish medical students and doctors were also denied residencies or refused privileges at Christian hospitals. As a result, many turned to Jewish hospitals, which had begun to emerge before the Civil War to take care of a growing Jewish population and protect the sick from proselytization. “Hospitals at that period of time were places where people went to die or for long-term care,” Falk says. “If you had a home and you could be taken care of, you did that at home. They were for poor people or people who could not be cared for, for one reason or another.” At a Jewish hospital, patients could avoid deathbed conversions and receive comfort and care in an environment with people who understood their customs and religious requirements.

America’s first Jewish hospital, established in Cincinnati in 1850, was built in the wake of a cholera epidemic to minister to the city’s Jewish migrant merchants and indigent. By the mid-20th century more than a hundred hospitals had been founded by Jewish communities. These volunteer hospitals played an instrumental role as the focus of community and civic pride. They not only alleviated the burden that the swelling numbers of immigrants might have placed on cities, but, by caring for patients of all creeds, engendered goodwill among their non-Jewish neighbors. In cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Milwaukee, Jewish hospitals stood as the most visible manifestation of Jewish community philanthropy, as well as a monument to science and progress.

Jews and Genes

Beyond Chicken Soup demonstrates how, throughout history, medicine has been used by and against Jews to sometimes contradictory ends: to assert ethnic identity, to encourage assimilation, to marginalize and exclude, or to inspire pride. Nowhere are these shifting motives more striking than in the laboratory section of the exhibition, which deals with the fraught history of Jews and genes.

Eugenics peaked in popularity in the U.S. and Europe early in the 20th century. Drawing from the principles of animal breeding, proponents argued that humans could be categorized based on biological and racial attributes, and that personality traits and behaviors were inherited. One poster distributed by the American Eugenics Society in the 1920s explained that “feeblemindedness, epilepsy, criminality, insanity, alcoholism, pauperism … are inherited in exactly the same way as color in guinea pigs.”

These theories so permeated American culture that universities developed classes on “race betterment,” and eugenics groups hosted lectures and exhibits on heredity. At state agricultural fairs, awards were given out not just for prize pigs but for “fitter families” and “better babies.” On the wall of the museum is a replica of a 1927 “fitter families” pedigree card, designed by the Eugenics Society of the United States of America. It assigned “eugenics scores” to participants, based on family history, education, and medical and psychometric assessments. Alongside, a flashing display from the Eugenics Record Office warns of the burdens placed on society by “persons of bad heredity, such as the insane, feeble-minded, criminals and other defectives.”

“Eugenics thinking was simply the way educated people thought about groups of people,” Falk says. Even Jews viewed their own racial heredity as defining a distinct culture. A 1916 treatise on Jewish Eugenics by Rabbi Max Reichler, for example, asserted that marriage laws passed down from Abraham helped ensure racial health and purity. By encouraging mating among Jews of “superior stock,” these traditions, Reichler argued, had “rendered the Jewish race immune from disease and destruction.”

While Reichler used eugenics to support an idea of Jews as exceptionally healthy, the pseudoscience was used elsewhere to justify anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jews as weak, dirty, and diseased. In the U.S. these prejudices were aimed chiefly at the 2.25 million Jewish immigrants who disembarked at American ports between 1880 and the 1920s, many of them arriving from Eastern Europe destitute and malnourished. Tuberculosis, a leading cause of death at the turn of the century, was regarded as a “Jewish disease” brought ashore by these newcomers.

At a Jewish hospital, patients could avoid deathbed conversions and receive comfort and care in an environment with people who understood their customs and religious requirements.

Maurice Fishberg, a Russian-born physician and amateur anthropologist, applied the principles of eugenics to conduct an ethnology of the Jews. By collecting extensive data on the physical characteristics, habits, and mortality rates of New York’s Jewish population, Fishberg was able to prove that TB was a product of malnutrition and the crowded tenements, not heredity. In fact, Fishberg showed, Jews had proportionately lower rates of tuberculosis than their urban peers, suggesting an inherited immunity that Fishberg chalked up to kosher traditions of Jewish slaughterhouses and the “infrequency of alcoholism and syphilis among them.”

Eugenics abruptly fell into disrepute due to its associations with Nazi genocide, and was discredited by the discovery of the structure of DNA in the 1950s. Yet, despite a traumatic history with so-called “race science,” Jews were the first group to embrace large-scale genetic testing. When the genetic mutation that causes Tay-Sachs disease, a rare but deadly genetic disorder that is most prevalent among Ashkenazi Jews, was identified, Jewish communities quickly adopted and encouraged carrier testing. The first community-wide Tay-Sachs screening took place in the Baltimore-Washington area in 1971, and was rapidly taken up by Jewish populations across the country. One postcard on display from the 1980s offers Mazel Tov on a recent wedding and reminds newlyweds to go in for testing before starting a family.

“Beyond Chicken Soup” also wades into more recent debates, such as the possibility of a “Jewish gene” that might link religious and ethnic identity to biology, the advent of genetic medicine and counseling, and the growing popularity of commercial DNA tests marketed to consumers as a way to trace ancestral history.

“In the beginning of the 20th century, there was the idea of a physical basis to Jewishness,” Falk says. “Now that idea is growing again, in a new way, with a new basis.”

This story originally appeared in Humanities as “Chicken Soup and Other Remedies” and is re-published here under a Creative Commons license.