The older I get, the more difficult it is for me to imagine what my father's young life, especially his most formative years, was like. What I know of him is like a faint outline: He was American-born, the oldest of three children, and his parents were both Russian immigrants who met here. Raised in South Philadelphia, it looked as if he might have ended up living and working there his entire life. His father was a laborer, a poor weaver, and my father graduated from South Philly High in the momentous summer of 1929. College, at least for the time being, seemed out of the question.
Still, he had begun sometime in high school to work for a single Jewish woman, always referred to as Miss Gratz in the very few stories he shared about his past; she ran a pharmacy somewhere near my father's home on Fifth and Moore streets. Though she was one of many siblings — all of whom were married and had families — none of her nieces or nephews wanted to take over the little corner drugstore that she'd founded.
I knew somehow that she thought very highly of my father; the few times my brothers and I were taken as young children to visit her in the shop, I could see, even then, with what love and affection she looked at him. At one point, I believe, after he'd begun working for her full-time following graduation, she suggested that, if he were interested in running the store, it could be his. But sometime in his mid-20s, he decided he wanted more than that — to be a doctor, in fact, and so Miss Gratz and the store were left behind.
How my father got himself at age 26 to the University of Alabama — in the pictures I've seen of him during that period, he was a tall, painfully thin, very Jewish-looking fellow — and managed not only to get through undergraduate school but to really thrive in Tuscaloosa, is one of the mysteries of my life. (The university, at the time, I've discovered, was something of a finishing school for young Southern Christian gentlemen from wealthy families, many of whom had never seen a Jewish person before.) My father worked industriously at various jobs while in school full-time — he tutored some of his rich fellow undergrads — and never came home till he had his degree. When he did eventually return to Philly, it was to attend medical school at the University of Pennsylvania. The war disrupted his education somewhat, but he wrapped things up after his discharge in the late 1940s, and eventually hung out a shingle in Overbrook Park, where he built up a lucrative practice over the next three decades or so.
Still a Mystery
But I've learned recently that there are huge holes in my knowledge about him back then. It seems that he started medical school first at Alabama, but classmates from there who'd gone on to Penn insisted he should be with them, and somehow they convinced the powers that be of his worthiness (entrance requirements were obviously far more lax than they were when I went to college in the '60s). I also just learned from my mother that while he was working at the the drugstore, post-high school, he studied pharmacy for a time, somewhere in the city, but where and when is unknown.
Yet the most persistent mystery remains what it was that changed his mind, and sent him on to med school and a career as a general practitioner. He did it all on his own, through the sheer force of his will, something I could never really appreciate as a callow youth.
Having no aptitude for science whatsoever, I cannot imagine how he got through his pre-med studies (while working so persistently to keep his head above water), let alone making it through medical school at a distinguished Ivy. Nor do I know how he withstood the pressures of his profession, though I witnessed what some of his more grueling experiences took out of him. He scrupulously avoided answering any of my questions about such issues, no matter how persistent I was.
That is why, in the 25 years since his death, I've done my best to read as many books about medicine and doctoring — at least those aimed for the general reader — as I can, hoping that I might comprehend what he went through before I knew him, and even what it was like for him when we lived in the same house.
Names and Faces
Take, for example, Medicine at Yale: The First 200 Years, which has just appeared — and instantly has become one of my favorites. It's a beautifully proportioned and produced coffee-table-sized book, filled with splendid writing and excellent illustrations, like many another such book published by the illustrious Yale University Press.
Readers can simply make their way through the 200 years covered by the book, following the informal timeline kind of structure the bulk of the work follows. But there are also three essays on strategic moments in the med school's life, written by Thomas P. Duffy, M.D.; Sherwin Nuland, M.D.; and John Harley Warner, Ph.D., respectively.
It's a fairly WASPY enterprise that's chronicled here, until about the mid-20th century (though Nuland, a Yale grad, is Jewish and from an immigrant background). It's heartening to see, every so often, a woman's face and achievements appear in the early chapters (not surprisingly, in the field of obstetrics). It's also heartening to see that when Jewish names and faces start appearing, so do the accomplishments of individuals from other ethnic groups.
The managing editor of this enthralling history is Kerry L. Falvey, a graduate of Smith College, who's spent 15 years in publishing. Well, she's done a splendid job encompassing all of the challenges and triumphs in this thrilling march through medicine, and I thank her for the chance to share it all. I expect to return to these pages often to help perhaps unlock some of the mysteries that still haunt me about my father's life, even if he received his degree somewhere a good deal southwest of storied New Haven.