Jews and Medicine: An Epic Saga, by Frank Heynick

By M, John | Shofar, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Jews and Medicine: An Epic Saga, by Frank Heynick


M, John, Shofar


Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 2002. 602 pp. $39.50.

The engagement of the Jews in medicine is an ancient and intimate one. Despite certain and isolated sentiments in classical Jewish literature -- for example, that "the best of physicians will go to hell," Judaism has followed another talmudic dictum, namely, that "it is forbidden to live in a city without a physician" (BT Sanhedrin 17b). In other words, Judaism, throughout its literary canon and social practice, has sanctioned the profession of doctor, the art of healing, and supports the proposition that the physician is not the adversary of God, but, in fact, His agent, indeed His partner. One can go even further and make the claim that medicine came (and continues) to form a foundation for Jewish law. From the biblical laws of quarantine to contemporary rabbinical responsa dealing with genetic disorders, health and medicine have informed halakha as well as Jewish sentiment and practice.

Yet despite the rich tradition that has seen the rabbis give great consideration to Jewish health and well-being and despite the fact that the physician became a role model in Jewish society, especially after the high Middle Ages, Jews never developed a particular field that can be called "Jewish" medicine, something akin to the Chinese, Galenic, Arab, or Ayurvedic medical traditions. This makes the Jewish engagement with medicine a singular one. While there is no particularly Jewish medical system and the mere thought of a Jewish acupuncture or a Jewish yoga is ludicrous, Jews are central to the history of medicine, first in the Islamic orbit and later under Christendom. And it was in the secular world of post-Enlightenment Europe where they excelled as physicians and were disproportionately numbered among the ranks of doctors. Between the World Wars, Jews were 50 percent of the physicians in Berlin, 60 percent in Vienna, 66 percent in Warsaw, 74 percent in Vilna and a staggering 83 percent in Lodz. Dispersed far and wide, Jews since the Middle Ages have proven themselves to be deeply attracted to medicine, an appeal that has only recently begun to diminish somewhat. The Jewish role in medicine is an absorbing story, one that is the subject of Frank Heynick's Jews and Medicine: An Epic Saga.

This hefty tome seeks to tell the story of Jews and medicine from biblical times to the mid-twentieth century through the framework that depicts him as the Wandering Jew of tenacious legend. "In view of the truly overwhelming contributions of Jews to medicine throughout the centuries, the image of the Wandering Jew as Doctor is as powerful a symbol as the Wandering Jew of legend" (p. 4). For the author, Jewish doctors represent the "Eternal Doctor." As such, Heynick sets out to write a seamless story, following the path of the wandering Jewish physician, focusing on his contributions to humanity at large. And herein lies one of two basic problems with this book. The first is reflected in the book's subtitle. Heynick sets out to write an epic saga, one which concludes in the middle of the twentieth century, for that time "marked the waning of the Heroic Age of medicine" (p. 549). This approach can make for a good read but an historiographically and conceptually problematic one. Despite recognizing bumps along the way, Heynick provides us with a history of medicine that is teleologically linear, Whiggish, and indeed heroic.

And the real heroes of Heynick's story are Jewish doctors. Unfortunately, this sees the author recognize the contributions of doctors who happen to be Jewish, such as Jonas Salk or Rosalind Franklin, but for whom Jewishness played no role in their medical discoveries. Such was true for Paul Ehrlich, Nobel Prize winner, discoverer of, among other things, a cure for syphilis, and one of the main founders of chemotherapy. His Jewishness is relevant to the fact that he was denied promotion to the rank of full professor for 6 years after he had won the Nobel Prize in 1909.

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