By Karen Falk and Jeffrey S. Reznick
During the past few years, the NLM History of Medicine Division has loaned items from its collections for display in a number of prominent public exhibitions, at venues including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution. Most recently, several rare books and images from our collections are on display in Beyond Chicken Soup: Jews and Medicine in America, an exhibition that launched last month at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. We are in great company, joining a number of prominent organizations in their support of this project, including the American Philosophical Society, National Library of Israel, and Peabody Museum of Archeology & Ethnology at Harvard University.
Open through January 16, 2017, Beyond Chicken Soup uncovers the often-overlooked cultural history embedded in a scientific enterprise. It probes questions important to all Americans: how do medical categories shape identity; what are the impacts of medical authority; where did our current health care institutions come from; and how does culture influence the medical construction of biological difference.
As historian John M. Efron and others have explained through their research, for centuries Jews considered medicine a calling, an occupation of learning and good deeds. Their enthusiasm for the profession was legendary: a source of folklore, entertainment, and pride.
In America, which promised immigrants equality and opportunity yet often showed them bigotry and discrimination, Jews found the pursuit of a medical career especially compelling: it offered both upward mobility and societal respect. Moreover, their conspicuous presence in medicine reflected well on the Jewish people—a fact that was not lost on the proud parents of countless Jewish doctors.
But the Jewish doctor is only part of the story. Whether striving to live up to American ideals of health, contributing to the broader community through their hospitals, or looking inward to their genetic code, Jews have used medicine to express identity. A century ago, medicine defined Jews and other minorities as inferior; decades of social and scientific change transformed how medicine defined Jewishness and how Jews defined themselves.
Focusing on the Jewish experience in the United States, Beyond Chicken Soup demonstrates how the field of medicine has been a vehicle, by turns, for discrimination, acculturation, and strengthening Jewish identity. The experiences of Jews, as both practitioners and patients, offer a case study in the formative impact of medicine on cultural and social identity, as well as the impact of cultural values on medicine.
Among the NLM collection items featured in Beyond Chicken Soup are:
- Ma’aseh Tuviyah, [The Acts of Tobias], by Tobias Kats (1652?–1729), published in Italy, likely Venice, in 1708 and representing one of the earliest attempts to compare graphically the healthy human body to a well-functioning physical structure: in this case, a properly-run house.
- Sefer otzar hahayim [Book of the Treasures of Life], by Jacob ben Isaac Zahalon (1630–1693), published in Venice in 1693, and
- Ueber das Lehren und Lernen der medicinischen Wissenschaften an den Universitäten der deutschen Nation [On the teaching and learning of the medical sciences at the universities of the German nation], by the famous surgeon Theodor Billroth (1829–1894), published in Vienna in 1876.
- An image from our copy of Isaac ben Solomon’s Opera Omnia [Complete Works], published in 1515.
- Images from the Michael Zwerdling Postcards of Nursing Collection.
These items of Judaica stand among several wonderful others we hold in our collections, including a 16th-century Yiddish and Hebrew manuscript, likely written by a physician, which includes a number of medical cures arranged in the order of the ailment or the organ affected; several volumes of Avicenna’s Canon; and incunabula that represent translations of by Moses Maimonides, the most famous Jewish physician the late Medieval/Early Modern era.
If you have questions about any of these titles, or if you might wish to visit us to consult them, please contact a member of our reference staff at NLM Customer Support or (301) 402-8878.
And if you are a curator or registrar interested in arranging a loan, you can learn about that process here.