Lena Nemerovsky Kenin made major contributions to both gynecology and psychology with her successful medical practice and her groundbreaking work on postpartum depression. Kenin worked as a teacher before earning an MD in 1929. Her obstetrics and gynecology practice was geared to the needs of women: she designed her office with separate entrances and exits to protect privacy. In 1958 she enrolled in a psychiatric program and did residencies at Johns Hopkins and the Philadelphia Hospital for Mental and Nerve Disorders before returning to Portland to open a psychiatric practice In 1962 she published her first article on postpartum depression, uniting her interests in psychiatry and gynecology.
Popular myth suggests that during the height of her practice, Dr. Lena Kenin delivered at least half of the Jewish babies in Portland, Oregon. This joyful responsibility was not without challenges. As was more customary in the mid-twentieth century than now, expecting a child was a private affair. Most of Kenin’s patients wanted to keep their pregnancies a secret but risked running into a friend or an acquaintance in the waiting room. Kenin designed her office so that patients could exit through another door.
Born to David and Naomi (Swartz) Nemerovsky in Portland, on November 5, 1897, Lena Nemerovsky Kenin attended Reed College and graduated with a B.S. from the University of Washington in 1921. Her first career, as a schoolteacher, lasted three years. In 1924, she enrolled at the University of Oregon Medical School, from which she graduated with an M.D. in 1929. After interning at Good Samaritan Hospital, she set up a practice in obstetrics and gynecology in Portland that would flourish for over twenty-five years.
Despite her success as an obstetrician, Kenin felt ill-equipped to offer the emotional support needed by new mothers. As a result, in 1958 she enrolled in a psychiatric program at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School. After residencies at Johns Hopkins and the Philadelphia Hospital for Mental and Nerve Disorders, she returned to Portland in 1961 to establish a practice in psychiatry. Her dual interest in obstetrics and psychiatry is demonstrated in a 1962 article, “Mental Illness Associated with the Postpartum State,” which she coauthored with Norman Blass. Besides having a private practice, Kenin was an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Oregon Medical School and the chief consultant for the school’s health service, which served medical, dental, and nursing students. She belonged to numerous professional organizations, including the Oregon Medical Association, the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the Multnomah County Medical Society, the American Women’s Medical Association, the American Association of University Professors, and the League of Professional Women.
Kenin married a Philadelphian, Harry Marvin Kenin, in Seattle, on November 21, 1921. Trained as a lawyer, Harry Kenin served in the Oregon state senate, on the Portland school board, and on the state’s Welfare Commission. Both Kenins were life-long Democrats. In 1947, Lena Kenin registered with the Americans for Democratic Action.
Although Lena Kenin was a secular thinker who did not involve herself with synagogue life, her husband served a term as president of the B’nai B’rith Lodge and was affiliated with Temple Beth Israel in Portland. He died in 1954.
By all accounts, Lena Kenin’s intelligence and compassion were legendary. When she died in Portland on March 24, 1968, at age seventy, she had distinguished herself in three fields of medicine: obstetrics, gynecology, and psychiatry.
Bulletin of the Multnomah County Medical Society 23 (1968): 37.
Journal of the American Medical Association 204 (1968): 182.
Kenin, Esther. Telephone interview with author, July 1996.
Kenin, L., and N. Blass. “Mental Illness Associated with the Postpartum State.” Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology 5 (1962): 716–728.
Obituaries. Oregon Journal, March 26, 1968, 10, and The Oregonian, March 26, 1968, 5.
University of Oregon. Medical School Catalogue (1929): 40.