In 1894, at a time when “working mother” was a contradiction in terms for middle-class women, Rachel Skidelsky, a Russian immigrant with a husband and two children under age ten, graduated from the prestigious Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania to become an eminent physician in the city of Philadelphia. Not content to live the life of an average late nineteenth-century woman, Skidelsky believed that as a woman she was just as essential to the progress of society as a man. As a doctor and reformer at the turn of the century, she strove to improve the moral and health conditions of Jewish immigrants in South Philadelphia through improving their environment. Skidelsky sought to alter the environmental conditions, social conditions, and image of downtown Jews through education, work, and access to free bathhouses, swimming pools, fresh water, and fresh air.
Rachel Skidelsky was born Rachel Noar in Vilna, Russia, around 1856, and educated at the gymnasium in Vilna. In the early 1880s, her critical views of the Russian government caused her to flee to the United States to avoid persecution. Arriving first in New York, she later moved to Philadelphia, where she graduated from medical school and raised her family with husband Simon S. Skidelsky, a political commentator, translator, and botanist who is most recognized for his translation of Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done? Skidelsky’s children also led notable lives. Her son, Sidney Skidelsky (b. 1886), became a lawyer, and her daughter, Berenice (b. 1887), became a writer, political activist, and lecturer who specialized in American-Soviet relations, similar to her father.
Within two years of attaining her medical degree, Skidelsky became associated with the Women’s Health Protective Association. As president of the downtown Health Protective League, she sought to increase the health standards of the Jewish residents of South Philadelphia through cleaner water, streets, and dwellings. She utilized her medical skills through the Hebrew Ladies Emergency Society, often providing free medical attention to those who could not afford such services, and she advocated the implementation of work and education programs to end the cycle of poverty in which many Jewish immigrants in South Philadelphia were trapped. Around 1897, she was nominated to be a factory inspector for the southern section of Philadelphia. Her medical background, ability to speak Russian, and development of two piers on the Delaware River for area residents to use as “breathing spots” made her a viable candidate. Apparently, her appointment never came to fruition.
As a woman physician and an immigrant Russian Jew assisting other immigrant Jews, Rachel Skidelsky dedicated her life to overcoming stereotypes of her gender and her ethnicity. She died on May 13, 1909, with her daughter by her side after a two-week bout with pneumonia. She is buried at Mount Sinai Cemetery in Philadelphia.
Abram, Ruth J. “Private Practice: Taking Every Case to Heart.” In Send Us A Lady Physician: Women Doctors in America, 1835–1920, edited by Ruth J. Abram (1985); AJYB, 11 (1909–1910): 109; Bernheimer, Charles Seligmen. The Russian Jew in the United States: Studies of Social Conditions in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago (1905); Childhood in Poetry. Edited by John MacKay Shaw (1967); Friedman, Murray. Jewish Life in Philadelphia, 1850–1930 (1983); Morais, Henry Simon. The Jews of Philadelphia (1894); Skidelsky, Berenice. Papers, Boxes 1, 3, 12, and 13. Rare Books and Manuscripts Division, New York Public Library; “Well Known Female Physician Dies.” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 15, 1909, 4.