Out of the past … the doctor of the future

Out of the past … the doctor of the future

Lionel Zuckier of Teaneck writes about the delphic Fritz Kahn

Dr. Lionel Zuckier (Dr. Miryam Wahrman)
Dr. Lionel Zuckier (Dr. Miryam Wahrman)

Fritz Kahn may not be a name most people know, but this prolific 20th-century Jewish author, physician, and thinker has been rediscovered and his contributions newly appreciated.

Although he was born in Germany in 1888, Kahn’s prophetic view of how medicine would be practiced in the future has captured the imagination of a 21st-century doctor, Lionel Zuckier of Teaneck. Dr. Zuckier, a radiologist, and his co-author, Dr. Conrad-Amadeus Voltin, just published an article in the June 4 issue of JAMA, the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association, marking 100 years since Dr. Kahn proposed his vision of the future of medicine.

The essay, “Fritz Kahn and the Centenary of The Doctor of the Future,” pays homage to this fascinating prophetic figure who predicted the modern model of high-tech telemedicine, decades before it was implemented.

“What caught my eye was his vision of the doctor of the future,” Dr. Zuckier, head of the division of nuclear medicine at Montefiore Medical Center and a professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, said. “The back story about the Holocaust was important to me as well.”

In their article, Drs. Zuckier and Voltin write: “Kahn shared a prescient and nuanced vision of technology’s role in the patient-physician interaction, a topic of continued interest and relevance today.” They describe how his vision for medicine evolved during the 1920s and ’30s. An early-20th-century doctor typically made home visits, carrying his little black bag of instruments. But as quoted in the JAMA article, Dr. Kahn, who practiced medicine in pre-World War II Germany, wrote about a future where the doctor’s desk faces “a control apparatus with rows of patient names … displayed on the wall above his workspace are cardiac and respiratory tracings and displays of blood pressure, temperature, and a chest radiograph. Heart sounds, rendered as musical notes, emerge from a speaker.”

In his 1925 publication, Dr. Kahn noted that in the future, a physician would not have to travel to his patients but instead would be a “bioengineer,” treating the human body “with similar methods and apparatuses as an engineer checks the operation of his machines.”

“I thought he was very visionary in his day,” Dr. Zuckier said. “I thought it was quite interesting that he envisioned a setup that we actually have today.”

But, he continued, “it wasn’t just the technology” Dr. Kahn also proposed “ideas of technology replacing the doctor/patient relationship.” In his first vision of the doctor of the future, he noted that the doctor can “‘stay home, and not trudge through snow and rain.”

In Dr. Kahn’s publication, “the doctor becomes international, expanded in his reach.”

In his illustration, published in 1925, a futuristic doctor sits, a cigarette in his mouth as was common at the time, manipulating a Star Trek-like control panel while gazing at medical data posted on the wall. Dr. Kahn’s pictures didn’t show computers, but that is not surprising. Although various calculating machines were developed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the first computer, the ENIAC, was not built until 1945, famously taking up a full room. It is interesting to note that one of the early calculating machines included the Turing-Welchman Bombe, developed to decipher Nazi secret codes during World War II. The first personal computers did not appear until the 1970s.

Dr. Kahn did, however, envision collaboration and sharing information between various medical disciplines, and the technology for long-distance medicine.

Fritz Kahn was born in Germany in 1888 to Jewish parents. His father, a doctor who was active in their German Jewish community, moved to New York shortly after Fritz’s birth, and soon brought the family to join him. In 1895 the Kahns returned to Germany, where Fritz grew up, eventually studying medicine, sciences, and liberal arts at Berlin University. While a student, the young Kahn began writing popular science articles, and then books on human biology for the general public.

As a young physician, he worked as a gynecologist and surgeon and continued to write about health and medicine as well as astronomy (“Die Milchstrasse,” or “The Milky Way”), and the cell (“Die Zelle”). During World War I he was an army doctor, traveling to France and Italy, all the while developing his unique perspectives on science and humanity.

After the First World War, in a climate of mounting antisemitism, Dr. Kahn published articles and a book on Jewish history, which was a bold statement during that time. In 1933, as the Nazis came to power, Dr. Kahn’s books were banned and burned. His writings were later plagiarized by Reich sympathizers who removed his name and republished them without credit.

An early Zionist, Dr. Kahn fled to Palestine with his wife and two sons, and there continued to write and publish. His book “Unser Geschlechtsleben” (“Our Sexual Life”) was a great success and was translated and distributed internationally. Dr. Kahn, an example of what might be termed the modern version of the wandering Jew, next moved to France, where he was arrested on trumped-up charges of espionage in 1940, but thanks to intervention by his second wife, he was released. The couple then fled to Spain and Portugal, with the help of Albert Einstein, who wrote a letter on his behalf,

Dr, Kahn made it to New York. While his reputation and accomplishments preceded him, including a glossy spread in Life Magazine, he still struggled to publish, and after the war he left the United States for Switzerland. Dr. Kahn and his third partner later returned to New York during the 1950s, living in Manhattan and on Long Island, before spending their final years in Switzerland and Denmark.

If you search on Amazon.com you will find no fewer than 16 titles by Fritz Kahn that you can buy, including some original editions in German and other languages, and some newer editions that have been more recently translated and reissued. Since his writings have been rediscovered, some have been republished. In addition, posters of Dr. Kahn’s famous illustrations drawn from his works also are for sale. His publications typically included creative graphics covering a wide range of topics and themes, from science to medicine to history.

In Dr. Kahn’s prophetic vision, he writes, not only can the doctor treat patients from afar, while “sitting at his departmental apparatus in New York or Vienna,” he can send prescriptions to patients’ local doctors, and network with “an international commission of leading specialists from various fields.” This international network “harnesses the knowledge and skills of the best and most experienced physicians from around the world….”

Like Dr. Kahn, Dr. Zuckier, an accomplished clinician and medical researcher, is a prolific author; he has published more than 100 papers in medical journals. Across the span of his career, Dr. Zuckier has seen changes in the technology and how radiology is practiced.

Dr. Kahn’s future is now, Dr. Zuckier reports. “During covid, we leveraged remote technology, including remote conferences. We published a paper on the use of remote technology during covid, on the remote supervision of residents.”

“I find technology enabling rather than limiting,” he continued. He uses teams in his practice for communication with patients and connecting with colleagues, and employs other technology to access and share patient records. Now, post-covid, some patients prefer in-person interactions, he said. For this reason, when he instructs radiology residents, he tries to teach in-person whenever it is possible.

Dr. Kahn “was an unusual fascination for me,” Dr. Zuckier said. “I strongly identify with this person,” whose experiences as a Jewish doctor in Nazi Germany mirrored his own family’s history. “My dad was a survivor, and the Holocaust connection resonates with me,” he said. The terrible ordeal that his father, Elliott Zuckier, survived is featured virtually by the Montreal Holocaust Museum. The exhibit tells the story of how he survived the Krasnik ghetto, Budzyn, Majdanek, Auschwitz, and Theresienstadt, and a death march in 1945. He and his sister reunited after the war, but the rest of his immediate family did not survive. Elliott Zuckier later migrated to Calgary, Canada.

Dr. Zuckier said that Fritz Kahn also had to flee Europe and restart his life. “When he was thrown out of Germany, they republished his books without his name on them… [the publisher] added parts, including antisemitic diatribes.”

It was significant to Dr. Zuckier that Dr. Kahn was a Holocaust refugee. “I identify with him as being the outsider,” he said. “His Jewish identity was challenged. It’s an interesting story for everyone, especially now.

“As a kid, Fritz Kahn was already interested in science. He was bright and interested in everything.” He was a popular science writer, not unlike Isaac Asimov. He wrote books, some of which were first serialized as small articles. He had a striking way of illustrating, and those pictures became hallmarks of his works. His illustrations were unique.”

Dr. Zuckier has a large collection of books written by and about Fritz Kahn, including volumes on public health, school hygiene, astronomy, and even a book on Jewish history (“Die Juden”). He is planning to mount an exhibit on Dr. Kahn at Albert Einstein College of Medicine’s D. Samuel Gottesman Library, showcasing books and posters published by Kahn and written about him.

Dr. Zuckier said that we can learn from Kahn’s life. “There’s a lot of wisdom out there, and even if it’s 100 years old, it may be spot-on. He has a lot to teach us. What he predicted remains valid today.

“Also, he did not let adversity crush his life. He went on to continue his work.”

Looking forward, Dr. Zuckier predicted that “AI, artificial intelligence, is the next revolution. It’s moving very quickly.

“Kahn could understand what we do today. But no one will understand what will happen in 100 years or even 20 years. AI will have checks and balances, and I think it will be greatly beneficial, although we’ll have to monitor it somehow. Analysis will go to levels that the mind cannot comprehend. The human mind is impressive, but it is finite.”

Dr. Zuckier’s co-author, Polish-born physician Conrad-Amadeus Voltin, did much of the translating of Kahn’s German writings for the JAMA article. Ironically, Drs. Zuckier and Voltin have not met in person, but they have, as Fritz Kahn might have envisioned, conducted their successful collaboration entirely remotely.

Dr. Miryam Z. Wahrman of Teaneck is a professor of biology at William Paterson University of New Jersey, where she was a pioneer in developing one of the first biotechnology B.S. and M.S. programs. Her research in microbiology inspired her to write “The Hand Book: Surviving in a Germ-Filled World” shortly before the covid pandemic struck. She has also written extensively on Jewish bioethics, including the book “Brave New Judaism: When Science and Scripture Collide.

read more: