One of the first Jewish women to practice medicine in the US, Fanny Berlin overcame countless obstacles to become the respected chief surgeon of a major hospital. After completing her studies, she became a resident physician at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Boston, the only hospital in the city that hired women doctors. In 1878, barred from joining the Massachusetts Medical Society, Berlin joined nine other women in cofounding the New England Women’s Medical Society. Berlin was highly regarded for her skill with abdominal surgeries and served as chief surgeon of the New England Hospital until 1894. After resigning as chief surgeon, she continued to run a private practice until her failing eyesight forced her to retire in 1916.
A courageous, motivated pioneer in medicine, in the late 1800s Fanny Berlin became one of the first Jewish women to practice surgery in the United States.
Fanny Berlin was born Stefanija Berlinerblau in 1852, in Cherson, Ukraine. Determined to be useful to society by becoming a physician, she and a friend persuaded their parents to allow them to travel to Zurich, Switzerland, where they joined a colony of Russian women who were studying medicine at the University of Zurich. She entered the Faculty of Medicine in 1870, but in 1873 the Russian government banned any further study by women in Zurich. Fanny completed her medical studies in 1875 at the University of Bern. She was described at that time as intelligent, calm, helpful, and idealistic.
Following graduation, Fanny Berlinerblau, as she was still known at that time, decided to continue her studies in the United States. In 1877, she was appointed resident physician at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Boston, Massachusetts, and in 1879 joined the hospital staff as one of four women surgeons. The New England Hospital was administered by Dr. Marie Zakrzewska, a physician who felt strongly that women doctors could be successful only in a hospital led and staffed by women physicians.
Women doctors were not able to practice in other hospitals in Boston and were not accepted in the Massachusetts Medical Society, so in 1878 a group of ten women physicians, including Berlin, formed their own New England Women’s Medical Society. It was not until 1885 that Fanny Berlin and the other female physicians could join the Massachusetts Medical Society.
In 1881, the American Journal of Obstetrics published an article by Fanny Berlin entitled “Three Cases of Complete Prolapsus Uteri Operated upon According to the Method of Leon Le Fort.” By this time, Dr. Berlin had become respected for her surgical expertise in performing laparotomies. She became chief surgeon at the New England Hospital and remained there until 1894, when she resigned to devote full-time to private practice.
Berlin used her linguistic skills in helping the many foreign-born people in Boston, and contributed actively in the advancement of women in medicine. She retired from private practice in 1916, as her vision deteriorated in her later years.
Fanny Berlin died in Boston on September 4, 1921, respected for her medical skills and her compassion for her patients.
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