Syringes back in those days were made of glass and were enormous, with needles as thick as straws, recalled Adele Schneider, 69.
The syringes made getting blood drawn in 1960s Johannesburg, South Africa bad enough. Having blood drawn by a particularly “nasty” doctor made it even worse.
That was the position Schneider found herself in one fateful day as a 14-year-old girl, then a student at a Jewish school. She looked squarely at the doctor and told him: “One day, I will have you in this chair when I’m a doctor, and I will not hurt you.”
The experience set her on a journey that would take her to doing genetic screening and research all over the world. In June, she retired after 28 years at Einstein Healthcare Network, where she served as director of clinical genetics at Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia and as medical director for Einstein Victor Center for the Prevention of Jewish Genetic Diseases.
Schneider has drawn blood for countless patients for genetic screenings. She was among a pioneering group of doctors who made screening for Jewish genetic diseases more commonplace. By screening patients for genetic diseases and then using in vitro fertilization, she helped ensure babies would not be born with these diseases.
In the late ’60s, it was unusual for a woman to go into medicine. Schneider’s grandmother told her she should spend her time finding a husband. An uncle asked her why she was taking a man’s place.
“I was pissed,” said Schneider, a member of Adath Israel. “I didn’t talk to him for a while, and when I published my first paper, I said to him, ‘You see? I’m actually doing something useful.’”
Her parents, though, supported the path Schneider wanted to take. She attended the medical school at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, where she was one of 14 women in a class alongside 140 men. She didn’t feel any particular pressure as one of the few women, but did feel like the professors treated the female students differently than the male ones. The professors sometimes picked on the female students.
Schneider recalled one time when she was sent out of a ward for an outfit she was wearing. She never returned to that ward.
“It wasn’t a very hospitable place for women, but we didn’t know any better,” Schneider said. “The women stuck together quite a bit. The guys who were our friends were very supportive, but the hierarchy was not.”
At Witwatersrand, she also had the opportunity to visit a school for children with disabilities, which fostered her interest in genetics.
“When you work in genetics, you’re working with kids with disabilities, kids with intellectual disabilities and that kind of thing,” she said. “They’re the purest, loveliest people. That’s why I went into genetics.”
Schneider worked for two years in South Africa after she graduated, then came to the United States to work at the Wilmington Medical Center in Delaware. She hopped around to different medical centers and hospitals for more than a decade, a “wandering Jew” working in pediatrics and genetics.
In 1990, Einstein recruited her to do genetics work. At first, she and another doctor, as well as two genetic counselors, worked with just a handful of patients each week. As the field grew, so did Einstein’s genetics department, with its prenatal, cancer and eye programs.
Around the turn of the century, the department started to perform genetic screenings for the Jewish community. They started by offering free screenings at Penn Hillel. Their work expanded when, in the early 2000s, Schneider met Lois Victor, who wanted to increase the scope of the screenings for Jewish genetic diseases. This led to the establishment of Einstein’s Victor Center.
Schneider’s work went from Penn Hillel to JCCs, synagogues and other Jewish organizations around the country. In particular, she began educating the community on the importance of genetic testing, a message that spread. She also encouraged genetic screening for people outside of the Jewish community.
When she started, Jewish genetic screenings included five diseases. Now they screen for more than 200, 96 of which apply to Jewish communities.
David Jaspan, the chair of department of obstetrics and gynecology at Einstein Healthcare Network who has coordinated patient care with Schneider, said she enabled the Victor Center to become successful.
“Adele is committed to her work, and she is passionate about the role that genetics can play in all patient care,” Jaspan said. “Specific to Victor Center, Adele had a special place in her heart for the prevention of Jewish genetic diseases, and she brought that to everything that she did at the VictorCenter.”
Though retired, Schneider has not completely left the world of genetics. She is, for example, finishing research on blindness in the Chuuk State of the Federated States of Micronesia.
“In sort of a way, we saved lives,” Schneider said. “We also did good medicine.”