Barron H. Lerner: The secret history of Jewish quotas in medicine

Roundup: Talking About History

[Dr. Barron H. Lerner teaches medicine and public health at Columbia University Medical Center.]

As a Jewish physician practicing medicine in 2009, I hardly ever pay attention to my religious affiliation.

But in the years before World War II, at my institution and at other medical schools, Judaism was very much on people’s minds. Informal quotas limited the numbers of Jewish medical students and physicians.

Within hospital walls, some non-Jewish physicians supported the quotas and others opposed them. An untold story from Columbia’s Neurological Institute demonstrates an ingenious attempt by one physician to thwart what he believed was an unjust policy.

A central reason that colleges and medical schools established quotas in the early 20th century was the immigration of millions of Eastern European Jews to New York and other cities. When children from these families pursued higher education, the percentage of Jewish applicants increased.

This competition from Jewish students promoted the emergence of traditional anti-Semitic stereotypes, Edward C. Halperin wrote in 2001 in The Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences. Educators limited the number of Jews based on beliefs that they were too bookish, aggressive and greedy. Religious affiliation was deduced by studying students’ names, interviewing them and asking them directly on medical school applications.

“We limit the number of Jews admitted to each class to roughly the proportion of Jews in the population of the state,” the dean of Cornell University Medical College said in 1940, according to the journal article. At Yale Medical School, applications of Jewish students were marked with an “H” for “Hebrew.”

As a result, the number of Jewish students dropped. At the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, for example, the percentage of Jewish students fell to 6 percent from 47 percent between 1920 and 1940.

It is harder to document the exclusion of Jewish physicians, but this was occurring too. In “Time to Heal,” the medical historian Kenneth M. Ludmerer writes that quotas were even stricter for senior physician positions at university-affiliated hospitals. ...

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