Sophie Rabinoff used skills she honed as a doctor in Palestine to improve healthcare in some of the worst New York worst slums. Rabinoff spent three years as a resident at the New York Home for Infants, researching childhood diseases like rickets and diphtheria. Later, she became the only female physician in the first group of Henrietta Szold’s American Zionist Medical Unit, which created the first clinic in Palestine for Jewish and Arab children. Returning to the United States, Rabinoff worked as a pediatrician for the New York Department of Health, eventually becoming a senior health official and working to mitigate East Harlem’s high rates of tuberculosis and infant mortality. Rabinoff also became director of New York Medical College’s department of public health.
Sophie Rabinoff was a pediatrician and professor of medicine whose innovative work helped to establish the fields of public health and preventive medicine in the United States and Palestine. In a career that spanned five decades, she brought basic health care and disease control to the struggling residents of Palestine and to some of the poorest urban populations in America.
Immigration to America, medical education, and Palestine
Born in Mogileff, Russia, on May 19, 1889, Rabinoff was barely a year old when her parents, Louis and Rose Rabinoff, immigrated to the United States. The family settled in New York City, where Rabinoff was educated in public schools and eventually at Hunter College (1906–1908). She went on to study medicine at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia. After her graduation in 1913, she became the first female intern at the Beth Israel Hospital in New York. She completed a three-year residency in pediatrics at the New York Home for Infants, where she participated in important research on childhood diseases such as rickets, scurvy, and diphtheria. She also conducted research on infant feedings and nutrition.
With this specialized training, Rabinoff was selected by Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold to be part of the first American Zionist Medical Unit (1918–1919), a team of doctors and nurses sent by Hadassah to Palestine. The unit’s mission was to treat emergency medical needs and introduce basic principles of health care. Rabinoff, the only female physician in the group, organized the region’s first clinic for the treatment of Jewish and Arab children.
New York Department of Health
After returning to the United States in 1919, Rabinoff briefly pursued private medical practice, but her interest in public health eventually prevailed. By 1921, she was working as a pediatrician for the New York Department of Health. In 1934, she was appointed a health officer for New York City and assigned to organize the new health districts of the Lower West Side and the Lower East Side. In 1938, she became the health officer for the East Harlem district, one of the most overcrowded and underprivileged areas of the city. Her success led to her appointment as senior health officer for three districts of the Bronx, an area encompassing half a million people, in 1944. That same year, she received a master of science in public health from Columbia University.
In 1947, Rabinoff decided to return to East Harlem and address the alarming rates of tuberculosis, venereal disease, and infant mortality among the growing population of Puerto Rican immigrants. Earning the trust and respect of local community leaders, she gradually involved them in establishing programs of health education, inoculations, and other basic medical care.
New York Medical College and beyond
Rabinoff joined the faculty of New York Medical College as a clinical instructor in public health in 1939. At the college, she supervised the fieldwork of senior medical students. In 1951, she was made a full professor and the director of the college’s department of public health and industrial medicine, a post she held until her retirement in 1957. She died in October 1957 at the hospital where she helped to train many future physicians.
Rabinoff was the author of several articles, including “Nutrition Problems in a Community Health Program” (1939) and “Progress in Public Health During the Last Half Century” (1955). She was a diplomate of the American Board of Preventive Medicine and Public Health, a fellow of the American Medical Association and the American Public Health Association, and a member of numerous other professional organizations. In 1957, the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania presented her with its Alumnae Achievement Award in recognition of her long and creative medical career.
Selected Works by Sophie Rabinoff
“Nutrition Problems in a Community Health Program.” Women’s Medical Journal (May 1939).
“Progress in Public Health During the Last Half Century.” Journal of the American Medical Association (February 1955).
Journal of the American Medical Association 165, no. 14 (December 7, 1957).
NYTimes, July 8, 1951, and Obituary. NYTimes, October 3, 1957, 29:2.
Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. Alumnae questionnaire, April 1953, and News release, June 4, 1957.