Chicken soup is known as the “Jewish penicillin,” but there’s much more to the deep connection between the Jewish experience and healing than that, argues a new exhibit that launched in Maryland in May.
“Medicine has been impacted through Jewish participation and Jewish identity has also been shaped by our association with medicine,” says Deborah Cardin, deputy director for programs and development at the Jewish Museum of Maryland in downtown Baltimore.
“Beyond Chicken Soup: Jews and Medicine in America” is the theme of the latest JMM exhibit. The display, which probably will travel to other Jewish and general museums throughout the country beginning in 2017, is an immersive, explorative, hands-on journey through the 20th-century experience of Jews and medicine. JMM staffers have been working on the exhibit for nearly three years.
The featured attractions in the multi-room exhibit are the famous manuscripts of Baltimorean ophthalmologist Harry Friedenwald, which are on loan from the National Library of Israel and making their first appearance in the United States since 1943. The handwritten manuscripts are displayed in a recreation of Friedenwald’s study. Among them is a July 1922 letter from Friedenwald to his son Jonas, also an ophthalmologist, describing the challenges Jewish students faced getting into medical schools because of the early 20th-century quotas that limited the number of Jewish students. Harry describes a meeting he organized with fellow doctors to review Jewish admissions to John Hopkins University’s medical school. Harry wrote of the “inquisition” into applicants’ religious adherence, which was conducted by asking for statements from each one’s mother. Harry hoped to end the quotas.
The rest of the exhibit takes visitors through a medical school, a 1920s medical office, a hospital, a nursing station, a pharmacy, and a fitness center. When visitors walk into the medical school section of the exhibit, the first thing they encounter is a brick wall — “a metaphor for the challenges that Jewish students encountered,” says Cardin.
The medical office includes an authentic medical table and desk, as well as all the tools a doctor would have used at that time. The supplies — a full medical cabinet — were donated by the family of Dr. Morris Abramovitz (1879-1951). Abramovitz’s most popular and influential invention was the Combined Method Apparatus, which offered doctors the option of injecting more than one solution at a time. Photos demonstrating its use are featured prominently near a cabinet containing the apparatus, packaged and ready to be mailed to Indiana.
An ambulance door with flashing lights welcomes visitors into the hospital, where discussions about the first Jewish hospitals take place. Cardin explains that in the mid-19th century, ethnic and religious communities around the country were establishing hospitals to serve members of their own communities. Within the Jewish community, this occurred for many reasons: taking care of the community’s own members, combating proselytization, and ensuring that Jewish doctors who faced discrimination could be properly employed.
In Baltimore, Sinai Hospital was founded as the Hebrew Hospital and Asylum in 1868. By 1920, however, it changed its name and began serving the greater community, not just Jews.
Pharmacist Dixie Leikach provided an oral history to the exhibit, talking about the importance of the field of pharmacy in her and her family’s life. She says she met her husband, Neil, in pharmacy school; his father, Henry, already was a prominent pharmacist.
“People think Baltimore is small,” says Leikach. “When you add in ‘Jewish’ and ‘pharmacist,’ it gets tiny. Everyone went to school with each other, and many of the Jewish pharmacists in Baltimore owned their own pharmacies. Most have since been sold to larger chain pharmacies.”
Sharp & Dohme Drug Pharmacy started in Baltimore and later was sold to the Merck Group. The Bromo-Seltzer clock tower is a famous Baltimore landmark that was built by Captain Isaac Emerson, a chemist and inventor of the headache remedy, as part of the company’s factory. Emerson was a wealthy and well-regarded Jewish Baltimorean.
Dr. Alan Kraut, a history professor at American University and the author of three books on Jews and medicine, describes the significance of the exhibit within the context of Jews’ quest to defy stereotypes.
“Jews have been important figures in medicine throughout the ages,” Kraut says. “Also, Jews had to refute charges that they were inherently diseased or physically inferior in other ways to gentiles. In the United States, becoming a physician was very prestigious and a path toward assimilation.”
Kraut says that one of his favorite parts of the exhibit is the section looking at how Jewish leaders sought to advocate exercise and good health habits within the Jewish community in order to “build better, more robust bodies in the U.S.”
Interactive screens allow visitors to register their opinions about important questions concerning modern-day health and healthcare. Participants are asked to answer questions such as the following:
• “How do you choose a doctor? Is the decision ever based on gender or cultural background?”
• “Who should pay for the health care of those who cannot afford it?”
• “Who should be getting genetic testing and what are the implications?”
Cardin says that museum administrators have not yet decided how to harness the data they glean from the responses, but the information will be stored, organized, and later disseminated to inform Jewish decision-makers.
She adds, “With all the contemporary conversation around healthcare costs and ethical questions in medicine, this is a very timely exhibit.”