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The Dark History of American Medical Schools and Jewish Quotas
Will there be a reckoning in the wake of Stanford's report about how it suppressed the number of Jews it admitted during the 1950s?
Better late than never. That is the maxim that Stanford University embraced in waiting about 70 years to apologize for its systematic 1950s efforts to “suppress the admission of Jewish students.”
Stanford’s belated apology reminded me of something I learned while researching my last book, Pharma. In writing about the early history of the Sackler family (yes, later the OxyContin family), I discovered that during the 1930s, New York medical schools used quotas to limit the number of Jewish students. There were three Sackler brothers, the first-generation children of Eastern European immigrant parents who had settled into Brooklyn, New York. The eldest son, Arthur, was admitted to NYU Medical School. His younger brothers, Mortimer and Raymond, were not so lucky. When they followed Arthur into medicine, each failed to get one of the spots the NY medical schools allotted for Jews. Both were forced to go to a school in Scotland (Switzerland also was a prime destination for American Jewish students looking for a medical school that did not bar them for religion).
I did not write in Pharma about the background to the exclusion of the two Sackler brothers. It is one of the most regrettable chapters in the modern history of American higher education. U.S. medical schools started in the 1920s employing quotas to curb the number of Jewish students. Those restrictive admission policies were firmly in place nationwide by World War II.
The “problem” for the medical schools was that too many Jews, far greater than their percentage in the population, wanted to become doctors. A national survey of 10 major cities revealed the number of Jewish medical school graduates had surged from only seven in 1875—1880 to 2,313 in 1931—1935. When the secretary of the Association of American Medical Colleges reviewed the pending 33,000 applications in 1935, he was alarmed to discover that 60% were from Jews.
Jewish immigrant parents like the Sacklers encouraged their sons to become doctors or lawyers, professions they thought would open up the opportunities in new country.
The quota system embraced by the medical schools was seldom enshrined in the their published guidelines. It was mostly an unofficial but effective method of exclusion that the schools perfected through trial and error.
Starting in 1920, New York medical schools led the way. That was because New York had the biggest Jewish population in America and the largest number of students wanting to be doctors. Some New York schools started requiring applicants list their religion as well as where their mother and father were born. Other schools that thought asking for religion was improper remarkably substituted a question about “racial origin.” A few asked only for “mother’s maiden name.” Since American Jews sometimes changed their surnames to de-emphasize their Jewish roots, the schools added “list any change of names.”
Each medical school developed its own system. Yale, for instance, marked the applications of Jews with an H for “Hebrew.” (Yale not only had strict quotas for Jewish students but also limited the number of Jewish faculty.) Columbia created a program of “selective admissions.” At Cornell, the dean designed a method to “limit the number of Jews admitted to each class to roughly the proportion of Jews in the population of the state.” The dean at the University of North Carolina medical school cited “academic freedom and standards”—not antisemitism—as for why he limited “exceedingly objectionable” Jewish students to no more than 10% of the incoming class.
The exclusionary programs were effective. At top tier medical schools, the number of Jewish students plummeted between 1920 and 1940. At Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, for example, the number of Jewish medical students went from 47% to 6%.
The restrictive quotas for Jewish medical students finally came under sustained attack after World War II, in part as a reaction to the Nazi genocide in Europe against the Jews. The American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League lobbied for legislation to prevent discrimination in education. Studies they underwrote showed that it was five times more difficult for a Jewish student to be admitted to seven top New York schools than it was for non-Jews with similar academic records. Harry Truman's Commission on Civil Rights and Higher Education backed the effort for statutory protection.
Who opposed the effort to ban the discrimination? Columbia and other prestigious schools that argued that such a law would damage academic freedom.
The schools’ desperate arguments to hold on to their hateful policies of the past found few supporters. The 1950s marked the beginning of the end for the Jewish quotas. By 1957, only a fifth of medical school applications asked about religion. As states passed “Fair Education Practices” statutes, the schools slowly abandoned their quota programs. The ones who persisted, as in the case of Cornell, buckled eventually when charged with violations of the new laws. The last remnants of anti-Jewish quotas at medical schools were extinguished completely by 1970.
It seems long overdue for an apology from the U.S. medical schools that restricted the admission of Jewish students for decades. Self-reflection and admission of responsibility for past wrongs is what Stanford University did with its 75-page report about its exclusionary admission policies for undergraduate Jews in the 1950s. It is time for America’s medical schools to do the same.
UPDATE: An excellent 2023 article in Tablet Magazine about quotas deployed to reduce the number of Jews as students and teachers in elite American schools is The Vanishing: The Erasure of Jews from American Life
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