Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The rise and death of Chicago’s Michael Reese Hospital

Charles Shapiro
Chicago, Illinois, United States

Michael Reese and the Jewish presence in Chicago

In the 1840s Jews poured into Chicago. The emigration continued for several decades. Those coming from Eastern Europe tended to settle on the west side of the city where land was cheaper. They were relatively educated in the affairs of the day. Educational efforts focused on the study of the Talmud and other Jewish texts. Rabbis were their teachers. Slow to learn English, they spoke Yiddish; they cleaved to Orthodox Judaism. Poverty was endemic, and acquiring funds for charitable endeavors was difficult.

Jews originating in Germany settled, for the most part, on the south side of the city. A small component from Bavaria settled just north of the central area, opened stores, and began their life as merchants. Better educated and relatively wealthy, many spoke English in addition to their native language. They were prime movers of the reform movement of Judaism.

Michael Reese was born August 15, 1817, the eldest son of Clara and Moses Reese, in Hainsfurth, Bavaria. Learning the trade of a tanner, he immigrated to Baltimore, Maryland, in 1836. He worked as a tanner, supplementing his income with peddling. Ambitious, he moved to New York City in 1838. He failed in an importing venture but recouped his fortune as a peddler. He brought his six sisters: Elise, Mary, Lena, Theresa, Hannah, Henrietta, and a brother, Samuel, to America. They settled in Chicago, by then a well known haven for German Jews.

In 1846, Michael Reese moved to St. Paul, Minnesota. He made a fortune in land speculation. In 1850, he left for San Francisco. Losing most of his wealth in the shipping business, he again became wealthy by buying land deserted by people leaving for the gold fields of British Columbia. In 1859, he invested in Nevada silver mines and became enormously rich. A loner, a speculator, he never married. Interestingly, he never resided in Chicago. In 1877, he set out for Bavaria to visit his parents’ graves. He died during the trip. He was impressed by the philanthropy of his family in Chicago. Therefore, he listed them in his will as the inheritors of the bulk of his estate.

The United Hebrew Relief Association of Chicago (UHRAC) was established in 1859 in an effort to bring sanity to the chaotic efforts of raising funds for charity. One of the first priorities of UHRAC was the building of a Jewish Hospital. By 1866, funds were sufficient to purchase land at LaSalle and Schiller, the cost: $7,000. Two years later, the hospital—costing approximately $25,000—admitted its first patients.

Disaster struck. The first Jewish hospital in Chicago was felled by the Great Chicago fire in 1871. The Jewish community, indeed all of Chicago, was in disarray. In the gloom of the ensuing years, the bequest of Michael Reese became known.

The founding of Michael Reese Hospital

Watercolor of Michael Reese Hospital by George Farah, MD
Watercolor by George Farah, MD, Board of Trustees, Hektoen Institute

Jacob Rosenberg, a brother-in-law of Michael Reese, was a trustee of UHRAC. He proposed that they underwrite a new Jewish hospital utilizing funds from the inheritance. There were two caveats: 1) it was to be named Michael Reese Hospital and 2) it was to open to all, regardless of religion, race, or sex.

A plot of land was purchased by UHRAC at 29th Street and Groveland Park Avenue (renamed Ellis Avenue). In 1881, the first Michael Reese Hospital opened, located on the northeast corner of this intersection. The building was constructed of brick and stone—they wanted it to be fireproof. It was three stories tall, with beds for sixty patients. The cost: $60,000. Governance was invested to a Hospital Committee of five people: three came from UHRAC, of which Jacob Rosenberg was one, and the remaining two were physicians, Michael Manheimer, an internist, and Ernst Schmidt, a surgeon.

The hospital was an instant success. Nurses were hired through ads placed in local publications. The main qualification—great stamina! Within a few years the Hospital Committee members realized that the institution required a more professional nursing component. They decided to open a school of nursing, and in 1890 Michael Reese Hospital trained its first cohort of nurses. Qualifications: 12-35 years old; unmarried; letters of recommendation. They had to pass examinations in reading, writing, and math. Proficiency in English or German was mandatory.

In the first year, fifteen trainees were accepted. Skilled nursing supervisors were their tutors. They lived in the hospital under Spartan conditions. In 1892, a separate building for forty nurses was erected on the west side of Groveland Avenue at 29th Street. There was no tuition. A small stipend, eight dollars per month in the first year, ten dollars per month in the second year, was established. Room, board, and uniforms were provided. In 1895, schooling was extended to three years and didactic lectures, given by the medical staff, were added to the curriculum.

From the start, the training of young physicians was implemented. Initially, one or two medical school graduates were accepted. Their training took the form of a preceptorship. In a few years, the annual intern class grew to five or more. Though many left after one year, others remained for two to three years of training. Several were added to the medical staff immediately following the training period.

The physicians at Michael Reese Hospital were aware of the work of Pasteur, Lister, and Koch. They accepted the “germ theory” of infectious disease. Epidemics of typhoid fever and cholera flared in the crowded settlements of the west side Jewry. The response was twofold. In 1893, a dispensary was opened on the west side. It even provided sterilized milk for babies from impoverished families. Manned by the seventeen physicians, many came from the Michael Reese staff. Medical students came from the Rush Medical College to train. In return, Rush offered the physicians academic appointments to the school. Thus began the tradition of academia which was to flourish in the following decades.

The second response was the erection of a separate building on hospital grounds to function as an isolation ward. Additional buildings also appeared to address each perceived need: an annex for women and children; a laboratory facility; a morgue; a laundry.

The success of the west side dispensary necessitated a larger facility and in 1899, a new dispensary was opened on Maxwell and Morgan Streets. Contributing to its establishment was a $10,000 donation from Mrs. Babette Mandel, a grandniece of Michael Reese.

In 1888, UHRAC became the United Hebrew Charities. Raising funds was still difficult and a second organization, the Associated Jewish Charities, was founded in 1900, to coordinate fund acquisition. At the same period, it became apparent that the hospital was too small to accommodate patient needs and space for teaching new medical disciplines. Agitation began for a new hospital.

A new hospital

By 1905, razing of the main hospital started. Patients were housed in buildings on the hospital grounds. Two years later, the second Michael Reese Hospital, on the site of the original hospital, opened its doors. It was a six-story structure with beds for 240 patients that could be expanded to 300 beds in time of need. A pathology laboratory was housed on the first floor–a beacon of Michael Reese Hospital’s everlasting commitment to medical research. Space for x-ray equipment, a technique only recently discovered, was included in the plans. The cost for the third rebuilding: $750,000. Major donors included members of the Michael Reese family.

The United Hebrew Charities, no longer able to control the many complexities of the new institution, ceded governance to a newly formed Board of Trustees, composed mainly of philanthropists of German descent. The trustees were ambitious: they were certain they could easily raise funds for the hospital. This became one of their major efforts.

The charter for Michael Reese Hospital allowed the Board to have complete governance over itself and the affairs of the hospital with no external interference.

In 1909, the hospital secured a grant from the family of Nelson Morris: $250,000, to erect a building devoted to medical research. It was to be located at the southwest corner of the intersection of 29th Street and Groveland, caddy-corner to the main hospital. Mr. Nelson made his fortune in the meat-packing industry. Shortly after his wife, Sarah Morris died the family responded with a second donation of $300,000 to erect the Sarah Morris Children’s Hospital, to be located to the east of Groveland Avenue. The second grant was engendered through the efforts of Dr. Isaac Abt. Interning at Michael Reese Hospital, he subsequently rose to become one of the most prominent pediatricians in Chicago. Both buildings opened for business in 1913.

International recognition

The children’s hospital rose to prominence under the leadership of Dr. Abt. He recognized the relationship between poor diet and disease; consequently dietary regimens were instituted. Sarah Morris Children’s Hospital even hired wet nurses for the staff. Its fame soared through the efforts of Dr. Julius Hess, a student of Dr. Abt who was responsible for installing incubators in the institution. It was estimated that 80% of premature babies succumbed to death; this number fell to around 20% after the incubators were implemented. As a result, Michael Reese Hospital became internationally renowned.

Ongoing squabbles between Dr. Abt and the Board of Trustees came to a head when in 1924, the Board received a grant of $500,000 from the children of Max and Sarah Meyer to build an inpatient luxury pavilion on hospital grounds. The children were grandnieces and grandnephews of Michael Reese. Plans to locate the building to the east of the children’s hospital—blocking the view of Lake Michigan—infuriated Dr. Abt, causing him to resign. The building opened for patients in 1927. Large rooms with an attached bathroom, private telephones, and a kitchen serving gourmet food—it was the epitome of luxury.

The Medical Research Institute

Staff physicians often traveled to other famous institutions to learn new medical techniques. The Board of Trustees believed that research was the foundation of a great hospital. Multiple large bequests flowed to the hospital, and in 1932 the Medical Research Institute (MRI) was organized with its own board of trustees. The hiring of professional investigators ensued.

Dr. Louis Katz, the first full-time investigator, came from Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve Medical School in 1930. He knew of reports of atherosclerosis in animals and was interested in the relationship of diet, specifically fatty diets, to coronary artery disease in man. A series of experiments he conducted confirmed that high cholesterol was an important factor in causing the hardening of arteries, leading to heart disease. Dr. Katz became internationally renowned. With Dr. Richard Langendorf and later Dr. Alfred Pick, who trained in Prague, the Michael Reese Hospital’s Cardiovascular Institute became world famous for the interpretation of complex cardiac arrhythmias. Their annual course on the subject saw the attendance of many luminaries in the field.

Dr. Samuel Soskin from Toronto trained with Dr. Charles Best, the co-discoverer of insulin, to head metabolic research. He later hired Dr. Rachmiel Levine, who received his M.D. from McGill University. Together, they published research dealing with the mechanism by which insulin worked in the metabolism of sugar. Dr. Levine subsequently was appointed as Chairman of Department of Medicine.

Dr. Otto Saphir, who graduated from the Vienna Medical School, was appointed to head the Department of Pathology. He fostered the concept that death was “not the end.” Only with an autopsy could one understand the processes that led to death—knowledge necessary for progress in the field of medicine.

The fourth investigator hired, Dr. Heinrich Necheles, trained in Hamburg, Germany. He was appointed to lead research in the Division of Gastroenterology. His work led to innovations in the treatment of common gastrointestinal diseases.

Other notable additions to the investigative staff included Doctors Albert Tannenbaum, Karl Singer, Sidney Levinson, Roy Grinker, and Erich Uhlmann. Dr. Tannenbaum came to Michael Reese to pursue cancer research. During WWII, he worked under government contract to define the toxicity of exposure to uranium. His published work found that mercury and lead exposure were also significant hazards to humans.

Dr. Levinson arrived at Michael Reese in the early 1930s, ostensibly to find a vaccine for poliomyelitis. Under his leadership the Serum (Blood) Center grew to become one of the premier referral laboratories for hospitals in the Midwest. He demonstrated the value of plasma in reversing shock in patients. His discovery of the technique for freeze-drying plasma, reconstituting it by adding sterile water, was an immense boon to the war effort.

Dr. Singer, trained in Germany, came to head the division of Hematology. A superb teacher, much of his fame arose from the co-discovery of fetal hemoglobin and work in the field of coagulation.

Sidney Schwarz, a member of the Board of Trustees, upon reviewing records of clinic patients with multiple complaints and no diagnoses, became an early advocate of the discipline of psychiatry. Through his efforts, Dr. Grinker, one of the last physicians to be analyzed by Sigmund Freud, was hired. Dr. Grinker was instrumental in building the Department of Psychiatry into a renowned training program. He was one of the first to define and treat patients with Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

Dr. Uhlmann arrived at Michael Reese in 1936 to lead investigative efforts into the use of radiation in the treatment of malignant disease. Finding that patients with tumors originating in lymphatic tissue responded best to ionizing radiation, he undertook the novel idea to treat children with enlarged tonsils and adenoids with radiation. Years later, a subsequent chairman found the meticulous records of that project. With the Boards concurrence, there was an effort to locate those children and hundreds were recalled. To the credit of the hospital, cancers of the thyroid and salivary glands, rare tumors were documented and treated.

For a variety of factors, the Board of Trustees deemed it necessary to build a clinic on hospital grounds. In 1928, with generous support from the Mandel family, the Mandel Clinic opened on 29th and Ellis, the site of the original housing for student nurses. This out-patient clinic expanded the services and scope of Michael Reese Hospital, incorporating social services as an integral part of the Michael Reese milieu. The outmoded west side dispensary was deeded to another charitable organization.

During the decade of the 1930s, research was flowering and Michael Reese presciently began a humanitarian program. Physicians were identified whose practices were prohibited by Nazi edicts. Under the aegis of Dr. Sashir, they were sponsored to come to Michael Reese. Every department and division was instructed to make room for them.

When WWII began, Michael Reese rose to the challenge. From its staff, hundreds strong–doctors, orderlies, clerks, and cooks—it formed the 16th Evacuation Unit, a field hospital. Serving in the Italian Campaign, the unit was awarded the Bronze Star.

The death of Michael Reese Hospital

The Board of Trustees was well aware of the deterioration of its surrounding area. It hired consultants, local and national, versed in urban renewal. It joined other south side institutions in plans to revitalize the territory. City authorities were added to the mix, initiating programs with the intent of clearing the encroaching slums. While the city was marginally successful, the overall plans were destined for failure. The Board underestimated the magnitude of the problem. Changes were afoot and, I submit, the Board was unable to keep apace. It continued to govern as it had in the preceding decades. Solicitation of funds led to the erection of a few new pavilions as older buildings continued to deteriorate. The hospital was, in fact, akin to a college campus.

Overtures to move the hospital, rebuild in a more financially desirable area, were dismissed. Told that participating in establishing a medical school (government funds were available) would solidify Reese’s position in its present locale, was likewise dismissed. Was it too costly? Increasing the security staff did little to blunt the community’s perception of an unsafe neighborhood.

Ironically, it was the democratic fervor that flourished after WWII that sealed the hospital’s doom. Jews residing in the south side found that they were accepted in other areas of the city and suburbs. “White flight” ensued. There, they found hospitals and institutions to cater to their needs. The connection to Michael Reese was strained if not severed. Expert voluntary staff physicians followed their patients, leaving Michael Reese.

Ebbing anti-Semitism led to Jews joining organizations that heretofore had denied them entry. Funds that historically fed Michael Reese were diverted. Families whose members gained prestige as a trustee of the hospital joined the boards of other institutions. The Board of Trustees aged. The deficit in the operating funds for the hospital increased; it became more difficult to solicit money from the dispersing Jewish population.

Research, the glory of Michael Reese, changed following the war. The Michael Reese Medical Research Institute, the only one of its kind at that time, was part of a hospital complex not affiliated with a university and driven by individual investigators, naturally began to decline. The research icons who had been at the helm of his esteemed research institution aged, retired, or died. Their replacements, while medically knowledgeable, could not capture the luster of their predecessors. Furthermore, research was now big business, involving unseemly monetary outlay, instruments, and scientific disciplines that the Board of Trustees never envisioned and could not keep pace with.

Even the mundane appearance of “911” worked to the detriment of Michael Reese. Panicky patients called that number for emergency ambulance service. By law, they had to be taken to the nearest hospital. Michael Reese, in its inner city locale, was rarely the final destination.

Eventually the Board of Trustees capitulated. Selling the medical complex in 1991 to a for-profit corporation sounded the death knell for Michael Reese Hospital. The hospital lingered for several more years but the coda was inevitable.

Related articles

Michael Reese Hospital Beginnings
Michael Reese Hospital Neighborhood and patients
Michael Reese Hospital Nurses, interns, and residents
Michael Reese Hospital Physicians
Michael Reese Hospital – Pediatrics
Michael Reese Archive: Comments from our readers

CHARLES M. SHAPIRO, MD, is a native of Chicago. He graduated from the University of Chicago School of Medicine in 1954 and received his post-graduate training (Internal Medicine and Hematology) at Michael Reese Hospital from 1954–1958. After a two year stint at Martin Army Hospital, United States Army Medical Corps, he was appointed to the staff at Michael Reese in 1960, where he remained throughout his professional career. He retired in 2008. Involved in teaching, research, both clinical and basic, he is an author of over forty publications. He served as a consultant in hematology and oncology for a myriad of community hospitals. In 1980, he was a Consultant for the United States Government’s GEMNAC project. In 1989, he was awarded the Marion Clinical Laureate of the American College of Physicians.

Fall 2013



One response

  1. Dr. Shapiro,
    Was there a pathologist associated with Michael Reese with the last name ” Klemperer”? I’m fact-checking a manuscript by my late father, a pathologist.

    Thank you,
    Beth Brody
    [email protected]

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