When Peter Barland was applying to medical schools 54 years ago, his choices were severely limited — most top universities still capped their Jewish admittances through strict quotas, and winning a seat at such coveted institutions as Harvard, Yale or Columbia was next to impossible.
But lucky for Barland and his soon-to-be 55 classmates, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine opened its doors that same year, welcoming not only a Jewish majority, but also three women and one African American to its student body at Yeshiva University. Barland and some of his classmates gathered recently to mark Einstein’s 50th commencement ceremony, rekindling memories from those who had been there during its first days. Members of the class of ’59 gathered for a reunion on June 1st at the Harmonie Club, and the next day placed hoods on this year’s graduates at the 50th commencement.
“Einstein came along just at that time and I had the opportunity to go there,” said Barland, who is a practicing rheumatologist and now a professor at Einstein. “Many of us who went to the school were full of ambivalence. Things were brand new — everything seemed to be an experience, an adventure.”
Yet despite any initial doubt, Barland said that he and the rest of the inaugural class found a top-notch faculty, state-of-the-art medical facilities and an accepting, culturally diverse environment.
“The school really was first-class,” Barland said, noting that the school really hit the ground running. “It wasn’t a period of growing pains like many schools had. In six months, this school was attracting huge numbers of applicants for the next class.”
Among their professors were doctors like Alfred Gilman, author of the pharmacology textbook used at the time by nearly all American medical students, who had been denied full professorship at Yale University perhaps because he was Jewish, Barland ventured.
“People had been dissatisfied with anti-Semitism and bias in their positions,” Barland said, noting that this dissatisfaction drew prominent physicians — both Jews and non-Jews alike — to this new school that offered acceptance to all. A favorite husband-and-wife anatomy team from Germany — Ernst and Berta Scharrer — were not Jewish, but they left their university in Germany to teach at Einstein because they were disgusted by all the anti-Semitic policies upheld there, according to Barland.
“Jews at that time [knew] there was a quota in medical schools and obviously all the faculty in first year were not Jewish but a bulk of them were,” agreed another 1959 alumnus and retired radiologist, Mark Reiss, who remembers that Albert Einstein himself was excited to be the face of such a burgeoning, culturally diverse institution.
Because Einstein was part of Yeshiva University, the medical school also attracted about 14 or 15 Orthodox Jewish men into its inaugural class, who were eager to study in a kosher, Shabbat-friendly environment, where they could pray regularly, according to Barland, who is not Orthodox himself. Yet sometimes, this need to identify as a Jewish university caused tension between the religious and more secular students, he explained. ‘
“Instead of bias between Jews and non-Jews, our group — the non-Orthodox group — was somewhat wary of the Orthodox group,” he said. “We didn’t want to be the Jewish medical school. We wanted to be a school just like any other medical school.”
To this day, Einstein officially remains a Jewish medical school, and Jewish students recently published their own compilation of essays on issues that involve both Torah and medical perspectives, called “And You Shall Surely Heal.” But administrators aim to attract students from all backgrounds, focusing at different points in history on bringing in African American, Vietnamese and Latino students in particular, according to Executive Dean Ed Burns.
“The school is officially closed on Jewish holidays and the Sabbath but by the same token the reading room at the library is open so that students who are non-observant — be they Jewish or not Jewish — have a place to study,” said Burns, who began studying at Einstein in 1973.
Not only does Einstein pride itself upon its cultural diversity, but the school also boasts a female student and faculty contingency since day one.
“As soon as I had my interviews I knew that was where I was meant to be,” said Evelyne Schwaber, one of three women to graduate in the class of 1959. She spent her undergraduate years at Radcliffe College, the women’s counterpart to Harvard University. “There was just no mention of ‘what about you as a woman?’ They were interested in ‘what about you as a human being?’”
“I’m a girl, they’re guys, but it a was very, very respectful atmosphere and I think that came down from on high,” she added, noting that her role model — a female hematology instructor at the time — was even able to bring her baby in a bassinet to lab.
About 15 years later, by the time Burns was studying at Einstein, he said the class contained an equal number of men and women, which was still incredibly unique among American medical schools.
“It meant there were no differences between men and women as physicians,” he added. “It was like growing up as brothers and sisters in the true sense, that one never looked at gender as a discriminating factor — we were all the same.”
In addition to gender and cultural blindness, alumni said they enjoyed a distinctive sense of positive reinforcement from their professors and classmates, as opposed to the brutally competitive attitude that stereotypically plagues medical schools.
“We had such close senior faculty attention, and we were put into small groups for study groups so we really got to know these prominent senior physicians very closely and spent a lot of time getting a sense of who they were as people and what they thought about medical care,” Schwaber said. “It was the most humanistic and humane teaching that it was inspiring.”
Schwaber, still a practicing psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, in part credits the psychiatry department for this school-wide attitude.
“That psychoanalytic viewpoint pervaded not just the department of psychiatry but was a way of thinking about people that was pervasive in general at the school,” she said.
Einstein’s initial environment was at first so noncompetitive that many professors opted not to give exams, something that most reconsidered during the second year after students slacked off, according to Reiss.
“The message we got was look to the left and look to the right, we are going to make sure that everyone of you graduate when the time comes,” he said. “We were really spoon-fed. These professors wanted us to succeed — they wanted us to be the best we could possibly be and I think we’ve indicated that.”
Yet there was a moment when the tiny, close-knit student body was a disadvantage to these budding young physicians — and that was on the basketball court. After challenging Columbia Medical School to an impromptu game, the Einstein team suffered an embarrassing defeat to their opponents, who had around 480 students to choose from, according to Barland, who played guard.
“We got beat so badly, it was something like 110 to 25,” he said. “After the game we gave Columbia a cheer — ‘Aleph, bet, gimmel, dalet, the Einstein boys are really solid!’”
“They broke down in hysterics, but that was about the best we could do.”