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Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 56.2 (2001) 140-167



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The Jewish Problem in U.S. Medical Education, 1920-1955

Edward C. Halperin


In 1959 Saul Jarcho conceded: "it must be admitted that the evidence of discriminatory admission practice by medical schools [directed against Jews] is not of the precision or concreteness which the historian requires." 1 In this essay I argue that, on the contrary, the nature and extent of U.S. medical school admission quotas during the first half of the twentieth century can be thoroughly documented. Leaders of U.S. medical schools rationalized their objections to the admission of Jewish students on the grounds of proportional representation as well as the classic anti-Semitic canards of Jewish defensiveness, bookishness, poor manual dexterity, and avarice. The Jewish community, in response, was divided between those who accepted the quota and those who vigorously fought back. Here I examine the historical evidence concerning the quota, how it was justified, and the nature of the Jewish community’s response.

A Quota is Put in Place

Twentieth-century United States quotas restricting the access of Jewish students and physicians to medical school and postgraduate training [End Page 140] were a response to the massive wave of Russian Jewish immigrants at the beginning of the twentieth century and the interest of these immigrants and their children in medical education. From 1880 to the beginning of the First World War in 1914, two million Russian Jews immigrated to the United States, joining about 400,000 Jews already in the country. Following World War I and the Red Scare, the United States saw a rise in nativist feeling and a growth in organizations like the Ku Klux Klan that targeted population groups with foreign roots. 2 Overt anti-Jewish prejudice in the academic community in the United States reached its zenith when the children of these eastern European Jewish immigrants began to enter college in large numbers. By 1902, for example, 90% of the undergraduates at City College of New York were Jewish. 3

From 1900 to 1922 the proportion of Jewish students at Harvard College rose from 7 percent to 21 percent. President A. Lawrence Lowell, along with some members of Harvard’s governing boards, alumni, and faculty, noted this increase with grave concern. Lowell disapproved of immigrants who failed to merge into his image of mainstream America. Lowell had been an officer of the Boston-based Immigration Restriction League and was concerned that superior Anglo-Saxon culture might be undermined by excessive Jewish representation in the college. 4 In 1922 Lowell told Harvard’s graduates that "if every college in the country would take a limited proportion of [End Page 141] Jews we should go a long way toward eliminating race feelings among students and, as these students passed out into the world, eliminating it in the community." 5 Lowell suggested a quota and rationalized his views by arguing that a large Jewish presence on the campus would increase anti-Semitism in the student body and cause Gentile students not to attend Harvard. 6

Harvard’s Board of Overseers appointed a committee to consider the quota proposal. A faculty committee recommended that "in the administration of rules for admission Harvard College maintains its traditional policy of freedom from discrimination on grounds of race or religion." 7 The faculty committee voted against a formal quota, as did the board. 8 An unofficial program of educational access restriction was, however, adopted and spread to many colleges, universities, and professional schools. Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University, also supported a policy of "selective admissions" to limit the admission of Jews in favor of his perception of an elite "natural constituency." 9 Butler said that he had "not eliminated boys because they were Jews and do not propose to do so. We have honestly attempted to eliminate the lowest grade of applicant and it turns out that a good many of the low grade men are New York Jews." 10

The pressure of Jewish...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1468-4373
Print ISSN
0022-5045
Pages
pp. 140-167
Launched on MUSE
2001-04-01
Open Access
No
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