November 19, 2018

Doctor of the Barrio

When Julie Korenstein speaks out on environmental matters, she credits her mother, Dr. Pauline Furth, with shaping her own crusading spirit. Korenstein, who represents District 6 on the Los Angeles Unified School District’s school board, said that throughout her life her mother has been "the most important influence on me personally."

Furth has long been an activist in her own right. Now 85, she is newly retired from a 40-year career as a barrio doctor in the East L.A. neighborhood of Boyle Heights.

Furth was born at Los Angeles County General Hospital, the daughter of Russian emigrants who spoke Yiddish at home. Early on, the family settled in rural Porterville, where her father ran a poultry business. They were the only Jews in the area.

After boys at school called her a Christ-killer and put a decapitated rat down her back, her parents relocated to Boyle Heights. Across the street from the family home was the first Mt. Sinai Hospital, forerunner of today’s Cedars-Sinai. The female doctor who headed the hospital sometimes stopped by for tea and conversation. This was young Furth’s first inkling that she too might enter the medical field.

"We were poor, but didn’t know we were poor," Furth said. She grew up among emigrants from Scotland, Ireland, Italy and Mexico, learning fluent Spanish along the way. At Belvedere Junior High School, she served as the first ever female student body president. Later, she exchanged love-letters with a young man who would one day be a movie star: Anthony Quinn.

Graduating from Garfield High in 1933, she quickly earned a political science degree from UC Berkeley. Then it was on to Hastings Law School, which she left after a year, to accept what she calls "a glorious opportunity" to organize California laborers and farm workers. Posted in Monterey, she learned to scrape fish in the canneries lining the wharf. "We always saw this man on the end of a pier, sitting and writing," she said. The man was John Steinbeck.

Ultimately she would meet and marry Al Furth. Because he was often far from home working as a merchant seaman, she stayed with her parents in East Los Angeles for the birth of daughter Julie. In the 1950s, after serving as an officer in a cannery workers’ union, she decided to enter medical school. With the blessings of her husband and parents, who gladly provided child care for then-2-year-old Julie, Furth became one of only two women in her class at the College of Osteopathic Physicians and Surgeons, which would later evolve into the medical school of UC Irvine.

In that era, access to medical training was severely restricted both for Jews and for women. The prestigious USC Medical School, for instance, reportedly accepted only 5 percent women and 5 percent Jews. Happily, Furth faced little discrimination in the course of her studies. But as graduation approached, when she was pregnant with her second daughter, the dean called her into his office.

"It’s going to be embarrassing," he said, "if you go up on the platform. Would you mind if we gave you your certificate in private?"

As a general practitioner, Furth opened a clinic that still thrives on Cesar Chavez Boulevard. Over the years, she says, "I’ve known and followed four generations of East L.A. families." Today, the running of the clinic is handled by a younger partner, whom she describes as having more koichas (energy) than she herself can muster. She lives near Hancock Park with her second husband, a retired history teacher.

Her activities revolve around environmental issues, the Peace Center, and the Workman’s Circle, where she can further her interest in Yiddish language and culture. Not long ago she traveled to China to help daughter Marlene adopt an abandoned baby, now named Jennie Anmei Furth, whom she calls "one of the joys of my life."

For Furth, deep community involvement is "a Jewish trait, from the days of the shtetl." She points out many relatives who have made their mark, including a professor at the University of Moscow, a female scientist with the University of Chicago, and an early kibbutznik, Yasha Frumkin, who once worked closely with David Ben Gurion. About her own contributions she remains modest: "Looking back, I wonder how I did all those things."