History’s Lessons: Jewish Anarchist Doctors Cared for Philadelphia’s Immigrants

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The Southern Dispensary for the Medical Relief of the Poor opened in 1816 on Shippen (Bainbridge) Street. | Photo by Steven Peitzman
For history buffs, mentions of Jewish anarchists often conjure images of political activist Emma Goldman’s fiery speeches or assassination attempts.

However, many influential members of Philadelphia’s close-knit Jewish anarchist community in the 19th century have flown under the radar due to their relatively quiet occupations: providing health care to underserved communities.

“In Philadelphia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a large group of professionals who practiced medicine or pharmacy as a livelihood, while committing great energies to the anarchist movement,” labor activist and historian Robert Helms wrote in his Clamor Magazine article “Doctors and Druggists Among the Early Philadelphia Anarchists.” These professionals, many of whom were Jewish, treated patients, provided public health education and contributed financially to political causes.


Anarchist health care was rooted in immigration and labor activism. In the late 19th century, Russian Jews flocked to the United States to escape deadly pogroms and anti-Semitic laws.
Many settled in South Philadelphia, which was also home to Italian and Irish immigrants and African Americans.

The new immigrants, most of whom were poor, took jobs in the factories that grew during the rapid industrialization of American cities. The government imposed little to no regulations on these businesses, which resulted in starvation wages and hazardous conditions for workers. In his memoir, Philadelphia Jewish anarchist, Yiddish orator and labor activist Chaim Lein Weinberg recalled seeing Jewish bakers at union meetings who were so exhausted after their 16-hour shifts they fell asleep in their chairs.

Anarchism, or the political theory that deems governmental authority unnecessary and advocates for a society based on voluntary cooperation, appealed to members of this growing working class, who saw no use for a government that failed to protect them. It also appealed to members of the Jewish intellectual elite, many of whom came from immigrant backgrounds themselves and wanted to help their comrades.

Anarchism and health care intersected in the dispensary movement.

Dr. Steven Peitzman, a retired physician and part-time professor of medicine at Drexel University College of Medicine, said while middle class and wealthy Philadelphians could afford to hire family physicians for home visits, health care options were limited for residents of these immigrant communities. The responsibility of caring for the sick and injured fell disproportionately on women of the household.

“The first level of care would usually be one’s home remedies, or what we would call over-the-counter remedies, many of which during that period were probably worthless and spiked with alcohol, and some even cocaine,” Peitzman said.

Rather than hiring a doctor or going to a hospital, immigrants often turned to dispensaries, or free health care clinics. These institutions emerged in Philadelphia and other cities during the 1800s and provided outpatient medicine for coughs, “rheumatism,” dyspepsia and other ailments. Dispensaries in industrial areas also treated cuts and burns. Young doctors fresh out of the city’s medical schools often used them to gain experience, and the clinics reflected anarchist commitment to individual cooperation.

According to Helms, a group of Jewish anarchist physicians founded Mt. Sinai Dispensary at 236 Pine St. in 1899. The founding members included Max Staller, Leo Gartman, Bernhard Segal and Simon Dubin.

“It’s not unexpected that some young Jewish physicians would see a need there, particularly if they were already versed in Yiddish,” Peitzman said.

Staller served as the dispensary’s first president. Gartman, who hailed from a wealthy German Jewish immigrant family and started a cigar factory at Seventh Street and Passyunk Avenue before going into medicine, was the first treasurer. He graduated from Jefferson Medical College, now Sidney Kimmel Medical College, and practiced urology before going into private practice nearby at 525 Pine St. He specialized in treating sexually transmitted diseases, was known for providing care to sex workers and often lectured at meetings held by the anarchist-led Social Science Club.

Segal, a widely respected pediatrician, was another graduate of Jefferson Medical College. His obituary in the Evening Bulletin stated that “he first established his practice at Fifth and Queen streets, where he became a charity physician, caring for the poor at no charge.”

The clinic served local Jewish laborers and immigrants, who often suffered from work-related injuries, STDs and tuberculosis. Women took their children to be treated for earaches and colds.

Peitzman said that models of providing health care to the poor changed as the 19th century gave way to the 20th. The dispensary movement faded and was replaced with charity hospitals. In the 1940s, the Philadelphia Department of Health formed health clinics that assumed some of the work once done by the city’s dispensaries.

Mount Sinai Dispensary eventually evolved into Mt. Sinai Hospital, which remained open until 1997. Some of the original dispensary founders remained, and Staller stayed on as a visiting surgeon. While the institution they created had changed, their mission to fill gaps in the health care system had not.

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