Rita (Ricka) Sapiro Finkler, a pioneering endocrinologist in New Jersey, practiced medicine for over half a century. Her career was characterized by hard-won achievements, persistence, professionalism, and a feminist consciousness.
Born Ricka Sapiro in Kherson, Ukraine, on November 1, 1888, she was admitted at age sixteen to St. Petersburg University to study law, a rare achievement for a Jewish girl. After two years of legal studies, she took the advice of an aunt and left Russia, originally headed for New Zealand. After working her way through Europe, Finkler ended up in Philadelphia, where in 1911 she enrolled in the Women’s College of Pennsylvania. She married a chemistry student, Samuel J. Finkler, while in medical school and graduated in 1915. They had one daughter, Sylvia, born in 1921. The Finklers were divorced in 1924, leaving Rita Finkler to devote herself to medicine and travel. For a decade, she practiced mainly pediatrics and then obstetrics in the Italian communities of Philadelphia and Newark, New Jersey. In 1928, attracted by the new field of endocrinology, Finkler did postgraduate work at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, and in 1929, she went to the University of Vienna. In Europe Finkler worked with developers of the new Ascheim-Zondek Reaction, a reliable laboratory test for early pregnancy detection. The earliest of Finkler’s more than sixty published papers were on the results of these trials. Much of her subsequent research, all based on her clinical work, also focused on endocrinology in women’s health, with published papers on a range of endocrine disturbances, including ovarian dysfunction and amenorrhea, on infertility, and on the use—and misuse—of synthetic estrogens for the symptoms of menopause. She exhibited and presented at numerous conferences, including the International Congress on Fertility.
Finkler fought for each of her achievements, including her position as first female intern at the Philadelphia Polyclinic Hospital, first female on the senior medical staff at any Newark hospital, first chief of endocrinology (1938–1950), and first female chief of any department at Newark Beth Israel Hospital, where she became chief emeritus and consultant endocrinologist (1950–1968). Finkler was president of the New Jersey branch of the American Medical Women’s Association (AMWA) and was honored as Medical Woman of the Year in 1956. She was on the editorial boards of the Woman’s Medical Journal and the Journal of the American Medical Women’s Association. In 1965, the Women’s College of Pennsylvania awarded her the Gold Certificate for fifty years in practice and, in 1967, the Alumnae Achievement Award. Finkler and her daughter, Sylvia F. Becker, also a physician, organized discussion groups for New Jersey women physicians to provide mutual support, networking, and cross-disciplinary enrichment.
Finkler was a nonobservant Jew who felt her cultural Jewishness deeply. From 1938 to 1948, she chaired the refugee committee of the AMWA and was actively involved with bringing displaced women physicians, as well as a number of her own relatives, over from Europe.
From 1934, when she was a delegate to the International Women’s Medical Association Convention in Stockholm, to 1960, when she presented before the Medical Women’s Association of India, Finkler used her love of travel and her ability to speak six languages to meet with women physicians around the world. Her hobby was medical and travel photography, and she published articles on her travels. Rita Sapiro Finkler never did get to New Zealand, however. She died in New York City of a coronary occlusion on November 8, 1968.
Becker, Sylvia F. Interview with author, September 9, 1996; Finkler, Rita Sapiro. Papers. Archives and Special Collections on Women in Medicine, Allegheny University of the Health Sciences (formerly the Medical College of Pennsylvania), Philadelphia, and American Medical Women’s Association, Inc., Alexandria, Va., and Special Collections, F. G. Smith Library, College of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, and memoir, Good Morning, Doctor (1967); Gillan, Maria. “Rita Sapiro Finkler, 1888–1968.” In Past and Promise: Lives of New Jersey Women, edited by The Women’s Project of New Jersey, Inc. (1990); Knapp, Sally. “Rita Finkler: Endocrinologist.” In Women Doctors Today (1947): 165–184; “Medical Women of the Year, 1956.” Journal of the American Medical Women’s Association 11, no. 12 (December 1956): 434–441; Obituary. NYTimes, November 9, 1968, 33:5; “Personals.” The Medical Women’s Journal 46 (1939): 123; “Rita Sapiro Finkler, M.D.” Medical Woman’s Journal 49, no. 4 (April 1942): 121–122; WWIAJ (1928, 1938); WWWIA 5.
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Hurst, Marsha. "Rita Sapiro Finkler." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 26, 2019) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/finkler-rita-sapiro>.