Jewish Educator’s Name Removed from Prestigious Medical Award Due to Racist, Sexist Views

1
Abraham Flexner was called the “father” of modern medical education. (Wikimedia commons via JTA.org)

By Ben Sales

The name of a Jewish educator called the “father” of modern medical education is being removed from a prestigious award because of the racist and sexist views espoused in his work.

The Abraham Flexner Award had been given for more than 60 years by the American Association of Medical Colleges to a person or group that advanced medical education. The award honored Flexner, a Jewish educator at the turn of the 20th century who wrote a report revolutionizing medical schools in the United States.


In 1910, in what became known as the Flexner Report, he wrote that medical schools should raise their admissions standards, follow the scientific method and receive oversight from state boards. He proposed a model, still in wide use today, of two years of medical education followed by two years of clinical training.

But the standards recommended by Flexner led to the closure of a broad swath of schools, including most of those that educated Black people and women. This led to disproportionately low numbers of Black doctors, according to the American Association of Medical Colleges, as well as barriers to women advancing in medicine.

The Flexner report also contained racist and sexist statements. He wrote that women “show a decreasing inclination to enter” medical school and have “obvious limitations. Black people, he wrote, should be “sanitarians” rather than doctors and should focus on preventing disease in white people.

The award will now be called the AAMC Award for Excellence in Medical Education, the group announced at its annual meeting this month.

“Just as we recognize the positive impact that Flexner had on modern medical education, we also can no longer ignore the negative repercussions of Flexner’s words and work,” said Alison Whelan, the association’s chief medical education officer.

1 COMMENT

  1. Ben Sales should have check out this story more closely, but you would think the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) could be trusted to get its facts right.

    For instance, the AAMC uses the term “sanitarian” without explaining that this was the term for physicians who researched and implimented public health measures in the 19th and early 20th centuries. (To modern ears it sounds more like “janitor.”) Furthermore, the emphasis on Black doctors becoming sanitarians was not Flexner’s idea. This was the mission of the two surviving Black medical schools; they believed that an emphasis on public health would most benefit Black communities.


    Flexner was apparently the fall guy for the AMA, AAMC, and the state medical boards. Some years before Flexner’s 1910 report was published, these organizations had already begun to institute higher standards for medical schools and licensure, with resulting school closures.

    The AMA had done a survey of US medical schools in 1906, finding half of the then 162 schools not worth saving, but this study was not published. The AMA, apparently thinking that such study would be better accepted if conducted by an independent organization, contracted with the Carnegie Foundation and Flexner.

    Some scholars think it is unfair to blame Flexner for the closure of five Black medical schools. They instead claim that Flexner actually acted to save the two best schools, Meharry and Howard, helping them with funding and encouraging authorities to allow more time to institute the required improvements. In later years, when Flexner worked for the Rockefeller Foundation, Flexner helped set up schools in the South for Black children, and he was a critic of Woodrow Wilson for his racist and sexist views.

    And as for the AAMC’s claim Flexer was a “sexist,” this seems far from the truth. Flexner supported his two daughters in becoming noted scholars, one a “pioneer” in women’s studies. Flexner and his wife joined the famous 1915 suffragette parade in New York City. And in his 1910 report, Flexner promoted medical education of women on an equal footing with men. He wrote that intern privileges “must be granted to women graduates on the same terms as to men.” 
Flexner did seem puzzled and concerned by the the decline in the matriculation of women into US medical school, documenting the figures from 1904 to 1909.

    This all begs the question: Why has the AAMC so dishonestly distorted the character of Abraham Flexner?

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here