Three pioneering Jewish women doctors

A century before today’s fear of an Ebola outbreak, there was fear in Los Angeles of tuberculosis, and Dr. Kate Levy called out passionately to the Jewish community to aid those suffering from what was called the “White Plague.”

In fact, in the first decades of the 20th century, three Jewish women doctors treated Los Angeles’ afflicted, alerted the world to their plight and helped to establish what are now among Southern California’s premier health institutions.

Dr. Kate Levy  Photo courtesy of City of Hope

Another, Dr. Sarah Vasen, whose specialty was obstetrics, was the first Jewish woman to practice medicine in Los Angeles, and a third, Dr. Clara Stone, was a pioneer in treating the chronically ill.

Working in the earliest days of hospitals and a sanatorium whose origins were in L.A.’s Jewish community, all three doctors were medical pioneers.

Vasen is chiefly remembered as becoming, in 1905, the first paid superintendent and resident physician of Kaspare Cohn Hospital.

Created by the Hebrew Benevolent Society in 1902 to provide free care for tuberculosis patients, it was located in a two-story Victorian house, donated by Kaspare Cohn, at 1441 Carroll Ave. in the Angelino Heights area of Los Angeles. The hospital would later, in a different location, become Cedars of Lebanon Hospital.

“At the time, it was almost unheard of to have a female superintendent of a hospital,” said Jonathan Schreiber, the director of community engagement at Cedars-Sinai, and an organizer of the “Cedars-Sinai Historical Conservancy” exhibition, in which Vasen is included, that opened in June.

Angelino Heights, L.A.’s first suburb, was a well-to-do neighborhood in its day, and is today preserved as the city’s first Historic Preservation Overlay Zone (HPOZ). According to an article in the journal Western States Jewish History by Reva Clar, a friend of Vasen’s niece, the neighbors complained about the new hospital in their midst, causing “the city council to pass an ordinance which prohibited the treatment of tuberculosis victims within the city limits.” Consequently, by the time Vasen became superintendent, “The hospital provided only for the needs of non-tubercular patients.”

The hospital had only 12 beds and a kitchen. In 1908, the B’nai B’rith Messenger reported that the hospital had 166 admissions, and at one point in 1909, 21 patients, including medical, surgical and maternity cases — the medical specialty of the new superintendent.

Vasen, the only daughter in a family of nine children, was born in Quincy, Ill., on May 21, 1870. After earning her medical degree in Philadelphia, she became the resident physician and superintendent of the Jewish Maternity Home of Philadelphia.

After leaving that position and taking up private practice in Quincy, she traveled to California in 1904 to visit her brother Nathan, who had moved to Aromas, near Watsonville.

In 1905, she traveled to Los Angeles to explore work opportunities and found Kaspare Cohn Hospital. Vasen was able to put her maternity home experience to good use in L.A., as reported in 1906 in a piece in the B’nai B’rith Messenger: “At the Kaspare Cohn Hospital there is a baby in the incubator. It is a week old and weighs 2 1/2 pounds. The superintendent, Dr. Sarah Vasen, states that it has good prospects to grow up.”

Vasen’s stint as superintendent also brought her into contact with Rabbi Sigmund Hecht of Congregation B’nai B’rith, who had served on the board of the hospital since its beginning. The two became friends and Vasen joined his congregation.

With the opening of the new Kaspare Cohen Hospital in East Los Angeles in 1910 — which eventually would become Cedars of Lebanon — Vasen decided not to continue as superintendent, and instead went into private practice, devoting her work to maternity cases only.

As to her private life, after what Clar describes as a “proverbial whirlwind courtship,” Vasen, at 41, married retired bachelor Saul Frank, 56, at Congregation B’nai B’rith, with her friend Rabbi Hecht officiating.

Making a communal plea to help those suffering from tuberculosis was a second woman physician, Dr. Kate Levy.

In 1912, when the Jewish Consumptive Relief Association (JCRA) had its first organizational meeting, Levy was elected to the board of directors of what would one day become the City of Hope, according to an article by Paul Dembitzer titled “Twenty Years,” published in 1934.

What had caused a “group of serious-minded Eastern Jewish immigrants” to begin such an undertaking? An “influx from the East” to the warm, dry climate of Southern California of “impoverished Jews,” who suffered from tuberculosis, many of whom had come from Russia and Eastern Europe, Dembitzer wrote.

“The Jewish Consumptive Relief Association aimed to build a sanatorium that could serve as an alternative to Kaspare Cohn Hospital,” wrote Caroline Luce, on “The White Plague in the City of Angels” website. The proposed sanatorium would be a place “where tuberculars could receive treatment regardless of their ethnicity, religion, partisan affiliation or ability to pay,” wrote Luce, a research assistant and coordinator of the Mapping Jewish Los Angeles Project.

Because news of a proposed free hospital for consumptives had alarmed both the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, an appeal would need to be made for understanding and support, and Levy’s medical training and interest in the welfare of the downtrodden made her the right person for the job.

According to the book “United States Jewry 1776-1985” and the 1930 Census, Levy was born in New York around 1882 and was of Russian parentage. She received her physician’s degree at Northwestern University and taught clinical medicine at the school’s Women’s Medical College.

Her interests included the Jewish Manual Training School and “other agencies dedicated to the welfare of Ghetto Jewry.” Not surprisingly, she researched and wrote a chapter of a book titled “The Russian Jew in the United States,” published in 1905, which described in muckraking tenor the “health and sanitation” of that population in Chicago:

“Boys and girls with faces and frocks besmirched, careworn women and men, disorderly shops, rickety shanties which bring on pneumonia and rheumatism all on streets shamelessly neglected by the city authorities, make up a scene which must cause us to blush for our much vaunted civilization,” she wrote.

As a board member of the new sanatorium, in 1914 she would again use her writing skills, this time to pen an appeal for support for the new institution in the B’nai B’rith Messenger:

“Can all classes of our people assimilate and work harmoniously for one great cause?” she wrote. “The writer asks in the simple way which God has only vouchsafed her, the cooperation of the whole Jewish public, regardless of caste or creed.”

As a result of the work of Levy and her fellow JCRA board members, by 1914, the sanatorium had gained support, patients and its first resident physician, Dr. Clara Stone.

By 1929, Stone would use her experience to work for another health institution, the Mount Sinai Home for Chronic Invalids located in the East Los Angeles neighborhood of Belvedere, where, according to “A Hundred Year History of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center,” she was named the home’s resident physician and superintendent, a job she kept at least until 1940.

Founded in 1918 by the Bikur Cholim (visiting the sick) Society in response to another feared epidemic — influenza — and previously called the Mount Sinai Home for the Incurables, the hospital offered relief to those suffering only from long-term and chronic illnesses.

“Clara Stone, the superintendent, is a fine compassionate woman, whose sympathy is wrung every hour of every day. These, her charges, are so pitiful,” reads an article in the Jan. 24, 1935, edition of the Los Angeles Times.

Stone, according to the 1930 Census and other sources, was born in France in 1884 and came to the U.S. in 1901; both of her parents were from Russia. She was married at 15 and had a daughter, Beatrice, a few years later. Her husband was Charles S. Stone.

According to a lead from Susan Yates, manager of the Archives Program at the City of Hope, and confirmed by Claude B. Zachary, archivist at USC, Stone attended USC and is listed in the 1911-12 USC yearbook as a senior in the College of Physicians and Surgeons. 

Stone died in 1944 at age 60. By the time of her passing, the Sinai Home had become well established, and in 1961 would join with the hospital that Vasen had helped establish so many years before, to become the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. 

Narcissism is a bigger threat than TB

Andrew Speaker is home again.

The international TB-carrier was released last week from a Denver hospital, where he was quarantined, and allowed to return to Atlanta after health officials deemed that he was no longer contagious.

“I know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel now,” he said, shortly after undergoing surgery to lessen the amount of bacteria in his body.

If only it were so simple. Speaker’s real malady — his acute narcissism — isn’t something that you can fix with a scalpel blade or a dose of drugs. Indeed, the 31-year-old personal injury attorney’s reckless behavior and his subsequent failure to take responsibility for his actions serve as the ultimate example of how our culture has become plagued by a corrosive selfishness at the expense of the common good and common sense.

Research by Jean M. Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University, has shown that excessive self-admiration, vanity and a feeling of entitlement are on the upswing. Specifically, Twenge and her colleagues studied standardized questionnaire results filled out by 16,000 college students between 1982 and 2006, which asked for responses to various statements including: “I can live my life any way I want to.”

The bottom line: Narcissism, they found, is significantly higher in recent generations than in older ones.

“Andrew Speaker is a prototype of his generation — a generation that has been raised to look out for No. 1,” said Twenge, the author of “Generation Me.” “This is classic narcissistic behavior, not really considering or caring how your actions affect other people.”

Although many of the details surrounding this public health scandal remain murky, this much is clear: In order to celebrate his long-planned wedding and honeymoon, Speaker flew from North America to Europe and back again on six commercial airplanes knowing that he had a serious communicable disease; that the risk of infecting others was low, but not zero; and that public health officials were imploring him not to travel on a commercial jetliner.

Then, after discovering that the Centers for Disease Control was mistaken and that he didn’t have the deadliest type of tuberculosis — only a highly drug-resistant form — Speaker had the chutzpah to chide health authorities for destroying “an entire family’s reputation, ability to make a living and good name.”

Does anyone else out there hear a lawsuit coming? What we haven’t heard, tellingly, is any expression of relief that none of the hundreds of airliner passengers potentially infected by Speaker’s irresponsible conduct are likely to die from this episode.

Obviously, we need to be careful about branding an entire age group, but there does seem to be something going on here.

We’ve spent the last three decades raising our children to believe it’s all about them — and, by extension, not about anybody else. They’ve been steeped in empty praise and rewarded for the most basic of accomplishments. They’ve received stickers for going to the potty and trophies merely for being on the team. In my own community, video montages at bar and bat mitzvahs pay homage to the life of a 13-year-old as if he or she were a Nobel Prize winner.

Once these kids grow up and get out in the real world, the notion that they’re the center of the universe doesn’t suddenly disappear. I listened recently to a report on National Public Radio about how companies are hiring consultants to teach managers to heap praise onto a generation of employees who feel like they deserve to be stroked all the time.

It’s a long way from getting a gold sticker for going potty to boarding a series of airliners when you know you have TB. But, really, someone such as Speaker shouldn’t shock us. Parents, schools and society — in the name of raising self-esteem — have succeeded mainly in heightening self-centeredness.

Randye Hoder is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles magazine, The Wall Street Journal and others.

Q & A With Dr. Michael A. Friedman

Last May, Dr. Michael A. Friedman took the helm of City of Hope as its CEO. A federally designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, the 112-acre biomedical research and treatment center in Duarte got its start in 1914 when members of the Jewish Consumptive Relief Association set up two tents as a haven for those stricken with


Friedman, an oncologist and clinical researcher, also has experience in public policy and commercial drug development. He served as the acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration under President Bill Clinton and as associate director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI). He got his start as a clinical oncologist and professor at UC San Francisco Medical Center and most recently worked in the pharmaceutical industry.

The Jewish Journal spoke with Friedman as City of Hope celebrates its 90th anniversary, Friedman marks his first year with the institution and a state-of-the-art Helford Clinical Research Hospital, scheduled to open this fall, nears completion:

The Jewish Journal: What attracted you to this position?

Dr. Michael A. Friedman: If you look for the intersection between wonderfully creative research and dedicated, effective and compassionate care in an environment where all the best humanistic values are evidenced, I don’t think there’s another institution that captures all of that confluence quite so well as City of Hope. It’s an institution that has a splendid history, but more than that, is poised to have some wonderful scientific and clinical accomplishments over the next decade.

JJ: What were some of the challenges you faced as you began your tenure as CEO?

MF: The general challenges are that the health care environment in Southern California is very challenging, dynamic and unpredictable. Support for research from federal and local agencies is finite and hotly competed for. The economic environment in Southern California and the nation has been struggling, and that has affected development opportunities and fund raising.

The unique challenges here, I think, are to examine how a modest-sized institution that has aspirations of the highest quality activities can function effectively. We’ve decided there are a limited number of clinical areas that we want to focus on and do them extremely well.

JJ: Does that mean there some areas that you’ve had to let go or de-emphasize?

MF: Not so much de-emphasize as not emphasize. There’s a difference. We feel confident and capable of giving superb care for all kinds of malignancies, but from a research perspective, we’re going to focus on certain of these malignancies … where we can make a world-class difference.

JJ: With medical costs rising dramatically, how does City of Hope meet the financial challenges of health care delivery?

MF: Providing the highest quality care and research can’t be done without great expense. Our research is partly underwritten by grants … our patient revenues are higher than ever before … our past successes translating basic science into clinical science has generated substantial royalty income, but even these are not enough to cover costs. If we didn’t have donations, this would not be possible. We recognize that public generosity makes our quality of care and quality of research possible. We could spend less money and have things more self-sustaining, but we would lose the greatness of the institution.

JJ: How is City of Hope poised to make a difference in cancer research?

MF: The unique aspect of what we do here is taking basic science knowledge and translating it into clinically meaningful treatments. We’ve had this very pragmatic perspective since the institution was founded of trying to make a practical difference in people’s lives.

On this campus, a scientist in one building gets an idea, makes a small molecule — or monoclonal antibody or gene therapy or whatever it is — gets FDA approval to use that molecule in patients and walks across campus where the substance can be made under the most rigorous standards. And then the clinicians can administer that treatment here. That’s making that loop [from idea to reality] as short as possible without compromising a moment of patient safety or concern.

JJ: What was it like working at the FDA?

MF: It was hugely interesting and overall very enjoyable — especially looking back on it. When I was sitting in the House or the Senate testifying, I enjoyed looking around at the formal organs of government and knowing that it’s a privilege to participate in a democracy.

JJ: What do you think the founders who pitched those tents 90 years ago would think of today’s institution?

MF: While they would be confused by the complexity … and frightened by the number of choices and possibilities for the future … I think they would be struck by the humanness and the heart and good intentions of the institution that have remained remarkably intact over the years.

JJ: Are you willing to be a soothsayer and predict when cancer will be conquered?

MF: I don’t know the answer to that. I can tell you that there will be selective cancers that will be cured within the next decade. There are others that will be difficult and less tractable. This is the most complicated problem because each person is different and each person’s tumor is different. To come up with general answers to such unique situations is challenging.

There’s a pioneering spirit that was true when this place was first started and remains today: No problem is too hard. Today, it’s easy to look back and minimize the challenge of tuberculosis, but TB was miserable. There was no treatment and it was the No. 1 killer for many years. But nobody said, “That’s too hard.”

As TB became highly treatable, this institution could have easily folded its tents. But they said, “OK. We’ve dealt with one impossible problem. Let’s take on another impossible problem — this time it’ll be cancer. Or diabetes.” That speaks volumes about what this place is about: Hope. Hatikvah resonates in a lot of different ways. It’s a powerful idea that is right at the heart of this institution.

Healthy Future

Smiling at the memory of being asked to serve as chairman of the board of City of Hope, Jack Suzar confides, “They caught me in one of the weakest points of my life.”

He had just spent two weeks in bed with a case of pneumonia. Whether despite or because of his weakened condition, Suzar said yes.

Suzar assumed his position this summer, taking the helm at a time of unprecedented growth and change for the 77-year-old institution. Founded as a haven for tuberculosis victims and launched with two tents in the San Gabriel Valley desert, City of Hope now boasts 110 acres and national acclaim. Within the past year, the institution has finalized plans to build a new research hospital, opened a West Los Angeles Cancer Center and inaugurated a state-of-the-art biomanufacturing facility intended to revolutionize the process of translating research into treatment.

Suzar’s introduction to the City of Hope – not counting the potluck fundraisers he attended as a youth with his mother – came through accounting firm BDO Seidman, where he worked on accounts for City of Hope as well as The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

His mentor there encouraged community service, and Suzar soon hooked up with Jewish Vocational Service, eventually serving as its president.

Suzar has since changed jobs – he’s now a vice president at Bel Air Investment Advisors – but he still works for someone who encourages voluntary activism in a big way: Jewish Federation Chair Todd Morgan.

“I’m a big believer in giving back to the community. When people make meaningful contributions as Jack does, it has a profound impact on him and on the community,” says Morgan.

Pulling into the campus past expansive lawns, trees, fountains and a rose garden, Suzar comments that City of Hope is “an incredible place in terms of its serenity… It captures the people that work here. They all possess an attitude and desire to reach outside themselves and help people.”

As its name suggests, those affiliated with City of Hope demonstrate abounding optimism, and Suzar isn’t the only one who liberally sprinkles his rhetoric with superlatives when describing the facility and its programs.

“We’re changing the paradigm of how science is being done on the whole planet,” matter-of-factly states Dr. Larry A. Couture, vice president for technology development and transfer.

He’s referring to the Center for Biomedicine and Genetics, a 20,000-square-foot facility that enables City of Hopes researchers and other scientists to expedite the process of translating research into treatment.

Pharmaceutical companies, under pressure to generate product within three to five years, balk at investing the time needed to develop treatments using biotechnology. But at the Center, researchers can nurture their projects over several years.

They can also produce product and perform early phases of clinical trials through the facility. Once a therapy proves promising, drug companies then can take over the remaining, costly steps required to bring the treatment to market, sharing the patent and revenue with City of Hope.

“This era, the late ’80s to now, will be looked at as the dawning of modern medicine,” Couture predicts. He says that until the present, medical treatment predominantly relied upon chemicals to “try to kill everything that’s bad in the patient without killing the patient.” In contrast, biotechnology harnesses the body’s own immune system to selectively seek out and kill only damaged cells.

“In 10 to 20 years, there will be treatments like we’ve never imagined,” he promises.

Indeed, even as Couture spoke, his colleague Dr. Andrew Raubitschek was preparing samples of a substance he had created to submit to the FDA for approval. Taking around four years to develop, it’s a genetically engineered antibody that attaches to colon and breast cancer tumors and can enable doctors to see tumors that would not be visible with other forms of detection.

“This is a state-of-the-art diagnostic imaging agent for colorectal cancer,” says Raubitschek.

He is also exploring how the substance can be used for treatment and is currently conducting four clinical trials using a similar antibody coupled with a radioactive element that can administer a lethal dose of radiation to the tumor.

The enthusiasm of the scientists seems to be matched by that of the patients. “It’s an incredible place,” says Marc Fremed, who spent more than four months at City of Hope while undergoing a bone marrow transplant. “Other hospitals I’ve been in, I’ve had some good doctors and nurses, but it wasn’t every single person who was so nice.” From the orderlies who pushed his wheelchair to the X-ray technicians to the person at the front desk, says Fremed, everyone went out of his or her way to be kind.

It is this attitude that most impresses Suzar, who describes it as a “passion to be helpful.”

He is particularly pleased that more patients will have access to City of Hope’s special brand of care now that the San Gabriel Valley institution has opened a facility in West Los Angeles. Located in an office building at Wilshire Boulevard and Barry Avenue, the West Los Angeles Cancer Center offers treatment, screening and detection services, as well as educational and support resources. The facility’s light, airy chemotherapy area looks out on a tree-lined outdoor patio.

“We wanted to provide the same tranquil environment that’s found on campus,” says Suzar of the new center. Despite the many positive changes occurring at City of Hope, the institution, like any hospital, faces trials. Suzar cites the ever-changing nature of health care and the challenge of fiscal stability as two of the most important. He aims to develop a strategic plan and financial endowment that will assure the institution’s future.

As for making the decision to accept the role of chair back when he was still weak from pneumonia, clearly he has no regrets.

“I get more out of it than I put in,” Suzar says.