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Dr. Harvey Alter’s Nobel Prize is the success of Jewish America

The announcement that Dr. Harvey Alter will share the 2020 Nobel Prize in Medicine with two other physicians for their discovery of hepatitis C will resonate with the families of Jewish doctors around the world — and there are quite a few of those.

Alter of course isn’t the first Jewish doctor to win a Nobel Prize. In fact, in the beginning of his career, he had the opportunity to work with Dr. Baruch Blumberg, who was among the winners of the 1976 prize for the discovery of hepatitis B. It’s unlikely that Alter will be the last Jewish doctor to be awarded the prize either.

But I couldn’t read Alter’s story and not immediately think of my own family, especially my father, himself a Jewish doctor, and my grandfather who desperately wanted to be one but never had the opportunity.

“Being the only son of Jewish parents in New York City, it was preordained that I would become a doctor. One of my friends, of similar background, chose not to be a doctor and has never been heard from again.” Alter joked in a 2013 memoir. “In truth, my father, the brightest of nine children born to immigrant parents, desperately wanted to be a doctor, but financial concerns dictated otherwise. … He ultimately became a successful businessman, but never lost interest in medicine.”

My grandfather didn’t grow up in New York City, but not too far away, in an only slightly less notable city, Scranton, Pennsylvania. (You may have heard of it from a certain presidential candidate.)

When his mother died shortly after his birth, he and his siblings were carted off to Scranton’s Jewish Home of the Friendless, — yes, it was really called that — where they spent a few years until their father remarried and took the kids back.

Despite that rocky start, he excelled in school and even went to college. But at a time when Jews still faced quotas at American universities, he did not get accepted into medical school. Instead he went into the family business, the garment industry, and started a dress factory, which would never be particularly successful.

Like Alter’s father though, he never lost interest in medicine.

“I remember him reading Science Digest and other medical compendia in lieu of reading the sports pages.” Alter recalled of his father.

My grandfather too, even into his 80s, collected old medical text books and had an interest in medical history.

As parents, Jewish or not, are wont to do, both of these men thrust their dashed dreams onto their children.

My father got that medical degree and is today interim director of pediatric emergency medicine at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. Both his sisters became doctors of a different sort too, with doctorates in clinical psychology.

Of course Dr. Alter has today reached a height in his career that few others ever will, but the road that got him there is present not just in the lore of my family, but countless other American Jews, not to mention other immigrant groups.

Hearing news of his award today, it doesn’t just honor exemplary research in the field of medicine, but a century’s worth Jewish American experiences, and the tenacious dream that the future can be better for our children.

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