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50 Years of Turning Out Doctors at Einstein

Leon Chameides was an undergraduate at Yeshiva University in the early 1950s, taking all the required courses so he could apply to medical school right after graduation. But he knew that his chances of getting in were slim because of the unwritten rule that he and all his pre-med classmates understood.

“If you wanted to go to medical school from Yeshiva, you first would have to go to Columbia or NYU and get a master’s in biochemistry. Being accepted to medical school straight out of Yeshiva was almost unheard of,” he said.

Luckily for Chameides and his classmates, Y.U. was in the process of building its own medical school, the first affiliated with a Jewish university. Chameides was a member of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine’s inaugural class, which graduated 50 years ago this summer. The class of 2009 graduated in June, and Chameides and his classmates were there to help them celebrate with panel discussions, gala dinners and a special ceremony in which members of the class of 1959 presented the class of 2009 with their doctoral “hoods.”

Lecture Hall: A professor teaches medical students from the class of 1959 in this photograph taken in 1955. Image by ALBERT EINSTEIN COLLEGE OF MEdICINE OF YESHIvA UNIvERSITY

Aware of the thousands of talented Jewish students who were being turned away from medical schools around the country, Samuel Belkin, then Y.U.’s president, approached the university’s board of trustees in 1948 about establishing a medical school; the school formally committed to the plan two years later. Belkin and the trustees held fund-raising dinners and events in Jewish communities around the country, and mobilized Jewish philanthropists to raise money for the new endeavor.

“From a Jewish point of view, it was very important,” recalled Chameides, a pediatric cardiologist. Now 74, Chameides retired in 1997 as chairman of pediatrics at Hartford Hospital in Connecticut. He recalled that when he was applying to medical school, “there were strict quotas at that time, and tremendous discrimination. I went to the groundbreaking when Yeshiva first announced that they would build a medical school, and I was hoping against hope that they would be kind to us as graduates of Yeshiva College. For us, it was a godsend.”

Since its founding, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine has had a dual legacy, said Dr. Edward Burns, executive dean. “One part comes from Albert Einstein himself, and another part comes from the founders of the College of Medicine.”

To make his point, Burns refers to a letter from Albert Einstein that he has framed on his office wall. “The Yeshiva University Medical School will be unique,” Einstein wrote in the letter to Belkin, “in that, while it will bear the imprint of a Jewish University devoted to the Arts and Sciences and will represent a collective effort by our people to make its contribution in the field of medical science, it will welcome students of all creeds and races.”

To modern ears, this sounds like a standard nod to multiculturalism, but in 1951, the year the letter was dated, a commitment to diversity was no small thing. Redlining was a common practice, and “whites only” suburbs and developments were going up around the country. Senator Joseph McCarthy was becoming a household name. Despite this forward-thinking commitment, that original graduating class reflected only one-half of this dual legacy: It was 100% white and entirely Jewish. Of the 50 young doctors who graduated in 1959, only three were women. One African-American man and a handful of Latino students were admitted, but none of them graduated with the class.

“Einstein’s vision was genuine from the beginning, but one has to take that into context,” Burns said. It was before the civil rights movement “provided the opportunity for people of color to go to nonsegregated high schools, to go to college. It took about a decade of positive turmoil in the U.S. for there to be a supply of the individuals to even apply to medical school.”

When that time came, however, Einstein was in the vanguard: Burns said it was the first medical school to establish a program designed to recruit and retain African-American students. In the 1960s, the King-Kennedy Program sent admissions officers to “go out and recruit individuals that were of African-American origin,” Burns said, “and make them feel during the recruitment process that coming to Einstein would provide them a home of comfort and respect, so they could concentrate on becoming good physicians and not worry about the hostile environments that might have existed elsewhere.” After the 1960s, the scope of the school’s recruitment efforts widened to include other groups traditionally underrepresented in medicine, such as Latinos and Native Americans.

One such student from the class of 2009 was Monica Payares. Born and raised in Colombia, Payares knew she wanted to be a pediatric orthopedic surgeon from the time she was a little girl, when her brothers were both diagnosed with a rare hip condition. She moved to the United States to attend Florida International University, and it was there that a recruiter from Einstein spoke to her about the school.

“I always admired Einstein,” Payares said. “He’s one of the greatest minds in the history of science, and yet, he still believed in God. I’m religious. I respect that.”

Payares said the recruiter told her that when Einstein granted the school permission to use his name, he said, “I want this school to be open to all races, all religions, all genders.”

“That caught my attention,” Payares said. “It was a good feel for me.”

One of six medical schools in New York City, Einstein is the only such school in the Bronx, and the school prides itself on being very involved with its surrounding community.

Recently, Einstein was one of four medical schools in the country to be awarded a National Institutes of Health grant to run a study on the health of Latinos. A 10-year project that will involve thousands of volunteers drawn from the neighborhoods around the school, “this grant is a representation of our respect for the community, our appreciation that there may be different factors in health than there might be in the white population,” Burns said.

This is exactly the kind of program that drew Payares, now in the first year of her orthopedic surgery residency at Einstein, to the school. “I knew I wanted to be in an underrepresented area,” Payares said. “I knew there would be a large Hispanic population here. I like to be around my people, and I know they need me, as well.” Payares is one of 40 students in the class of 2009 who originally hailed from 19 different countries; 13% of the class is from groups that are traditionally underrepresented in medicine. (According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, only about 8% of medical students nationwide are from these groups.) Women made up 57% of the graduating class in 2009.

That’s a far cry from the class of 1959, with three women. One of them was Marion Zucker Goldstein, who remembers registering for her courses in a wooden shack. The elevators weren’t finished, so she and her classmates took the stairs up several flights to their anatomy lab. Now a geriatric psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry at SUNY Buffalo, Goldstein applied to medical school at a time when, she said, “most medical schools would ask you a litany of questions about: ‘Are you going to get married? Are you going to have children? Will you ever use this education?’”

“None of that at Einstein. I got accepted at Einstein, and it felt like home,” she said.

The other surviving woman from the class of 1959 is Evelyne Schwaber, who became a pediatric psychiatrist. Although Schwaber went to Radcliffe, a women’s college, for her undergraduate degree, she said she didn’t find women role models there. Whereas “at Einstein, immediately, there were a great number. Immediately there was a sense that I wasn’t an odd person out. This can happen: I can be part of the mainstream.”

The other aspect of the school that made Schwaber feel at home was its Jewish character — that crucial half of Einstein’s “dual legacy.” “I am an observant Jew myself, and I felt wonderfully comfortable,” she recalled. “I no longer had to consider all the things I had to consider in college: What about Saturday classes? What about food? I didn’t even have to think about that. It was very, very freeing.” To this day, Einstein’s cafeteria serves kosher food. No classes are held on the Sabbath or on Jewish holidays. The school has its own independent Orthodox synagogue, staffed by a rabbi whose salary is paid by Y.U.

Schwaber married during medical school, and was pregnant with her first child at her graduation, “a highly uncommon occurrence at the time,” she said. Now, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine Synagogue is full every Sabbath and Jewish holiday with medical students and their children. “Scores and scores of children,” Burns said.

Despite all the changes in the makeup of the student body, the basic tenets of the medical school remain the same after all these years.

“The founding faculty of Einstein were people who had to buy into the original legacy of openness and respect for all peoples,” Burns said. “Here we are, several generations past the founding faculty, and it’s still a schoolwide philosophy.”

Contact Beth Schwartzapfel at [email protected]

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