April 19, 2019

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.