February 22, 2020

From TB to T-Cell

Sometimes, adversity strikes gold. In Los Angeles, three major medical institutions, including Cedars of Lebanon and Mount Sinai — the independent hospitals that merged to form Cedars-Sinai Medical Center — and the City of Hope sprang from Los Angeles’ Jewish tuberculosis problem.

Cedars-Sinai’s story begins at the turn of the 20th century, when Eastern European Jews afflicted with tuberculosis (then called consumption) headed to Los Angeles, seeking a dry climate and clean air. Long before antibiotics were available, these "lungers," as the transplants were nicknamed, arrived in droves from the East Coast and expanded the city’s Jewish population from 2,500 to 10,000 by 1910, explained Steve Sass, president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California.

The local Jewish leadership — Hebrew Benevolent Society (eventually Jewish Family Service) and B’nai B’rith lodges — grappled with the obligation to care for these ailing Jews. Hebrew Benevolent Society President Jacob Schlesinger convinced his reluctant father-in-law, Kaspare Cohn, to help.

Cohn, a prominent businessman who founded what has since become Union Bank, converted a house he owned at 1443 Carroll Ave. in Angeleno Heights — now Echo Park — into the Kaspare Cohn Hospital. On Sept. 21, 1902, the hospital opened with eight patients and Dr. Sarah Vasen, one of Los Angeles’ first women doctors, as its medical director.

One of Los Angeles’ first suburbs, Angeleno Heights was the Beverly Hills of its day. It had the city’s largest concentration of Queen Anne homes.

"The neighbors did not take to having patients with a contagious disease in their midst," Sass said.

As a result, a City Council resolution barred the facility from treating consumption. So Kaspare Cohn Hospital opened a 50-bed tuberculosis facility on Stephenson Avenue (now Whittier Boulevard) in 1910.

The new hospital was twofold in its significance to the Jewish community. Not only was the hospital treating Jews with tuberculosis, but it was also haven for Jewish physicians.

"Unfortunately, it was difficult for Jewish doctors to get on staff at other hospitals," Sass said. "Even into [the 1930s and 1940s], it became a place where Jews could practice when they couldn’t get hired elsewhere because of anti-Semitism."

Community tensions muddied relations between The Jewish Federation precursor — Federation of Jewish Charities — which supported Kaspare Cohn Hospital, and two groups of unassimilated Yiddish-speaking, immigrants that wanted more done regarding Jewish tuberculosis. In 1910, the Hebrew Consumptive Relief Association raised the funds to build its own hospital in Duarte.

What started out as the Tents of Hope in 1913 — literally tents in lieu of buildings — evolved into the City of Hope. Meanwhile, Bikur Cholim created a two-room hospice in 1923 that became the Mount Sinai Home for the Incurables. Initially on Breed Street in Boyle Heights, Mount Sinai moved into a larger Bonnie Beach Place complex in 1926.

"It brought everything from optometry to dentistry to radiology to the neighborhood," Sass said.

Kaspare Cohn Hospital moved to Fountain Avenue in Hollywood in 1930. At the request of Cohn’s heirs, the hospital changed its name to the neutral-sounding Cedars of Lebanon in order to raise funds in the broader community. The new name was a biblical reference to the curative properties of Lebanese cedar branches.

Dr. Leon Morgenstern, who for more than four decades served as chief of surgery in Cedars-Sinai’s cardiology department, started out at Cedars of Lebanon in 1952.

"Cedars was more academic and research oriented," Morgenstern said. "Mount Sinai was more of a populist hospital. It was very difficult to get on the Cedars staff — they wanted only the top specialists. Those who couldn’t get on staff went to Mount Sinai."

In 1955, Mount Sinai moved to Cedars-Sinai’s current Beverly Boulevard location. Alternative sites, such as on Mulholland Drive and in Century City, were considered, but Beverly Boulevard proved central to where the Jewish community had moved. The Hyman and Emma Levine family (of which former Congressman Mel Levine and Dina Schechter are descendents) contributed the property, on which the original building stood until the 1994 Northridge Earthquake.

By the 1960s, discussions to merge Cedars and Mount Sinai into one medical complex was stirring up local Jewish machers.

"The Jewish community was going through a period of soul-searching," Sass said. "They were questioning whether to pour more money into institutions supporting Jewish continuity, as opposed to institutions which do not serve specifically Jewish interests and help the community at large."

The merger process spanned the period from 1961 to 1971. During that time, Irving Feintech, who in 1948 joined Mount Sinai, where his brother, Norman Feintech, was president, served as the Joint Conference Committee chair.

"It was just not easy at the time," Feintech said. "It was going to cost us $130 million. We had to find out how we were going to get that money.

"Before we went to the banks, we had to show that we had the community’s support," he said. "Ultimately, the community felt it was necessary. We didn’t need two hospitals going after the same money."

Steven Broidy Sr., Cedars-Sinai board chairman, convinced Union Bank Chairman Harry Volk to lend the capital, with the Cohn family’s blessing.

"It was a pretty smooth transition," Feintech said of combining the two hospitals’ staffs and cultures.

On Nov. 5, 1972, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center held its official groundbreaking for its 1.6-million-square-foot, 1,120-bed hospital. By April 3, 1976, the first patients were transferred to Cedars-Sinai’s obstetrics and gynecology and pediatrics departments.

"The move to Beverly Boulevard cemented Cedars-Sinai’s Jewish identity," Sass said. "By just the very statement of a Star of David on the building, it was clear what the identity of the hospital was."

With the move came a host of gestures catering to its Jewish patients and visitors: kosher food, mezzuzot, a full-time Jewish chaplain and the Jewish Contributions to Medicine Mural in Cedars-Sinai’s Harvey Morse Auditorium.

The mural resulted from two years of planning by a 60-member mural committee headed by Morgenstern. Painted by the late Terry Schoonhoven, it showcases Jewish men of science through the ages: Asaph Harovfe, Maimonides, Garcia da Orta, Dr. Jonas Salk, Sigmund Freud and Stanley Cohen, a Nobel Prize winner in physiology and medicine who was present at the mural’s May 2, 1999, dedication. Cohen represents the Nobel laureates in physiology and medicine, 42 of whom are of Jewish heritage.

"We narrowed [the mural’s personages] down to 40 figures," Morgenstern said. "It could’ve been more than 200."

Morgenstern noted Cedars-Sinai’s accomplishments, such as the breakthroughs in his department: the first open-heart surgery in 1955, the discovery of Prinzmetal angina coronary disease and Dr. Jeremy Swan and Dr. William Ganz’s catheter, which revolutionized cardiac monitoring. Feintech, who has had five bypass surgeries at Cedars-Sinai, also noted neurological and laproscopic advances.

Today, Feintech, and Robert Silverstein, co-chair Cedars-Sinai’s Campaign for the 21st Century. The project began with a $140 million endowment fund, and is currently working to raise $180 million of the $360 million needed for new buildings and programs. The S. Mark Taper Foundation Imaging Center will have its dedication on Oct. 16, with a critical-care tower scheduled for completion in three years.

"Cedars-Sinai is going to continue as the leader in hospital patient care in the future," Feintech said. "We’ll just keep moving ahead like we have in the past."

"What’s amazing about this whole story," Sass said, "is that from the challenge of Jewish tuberculosis came two internationally recognized institutions of medical research, Cedars-Sinai and City of Hope. Even though a century has passed, the Jewish mission has stayed intact. That history is something they can be proud of. It’s the legacy of our Jewish community."