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New York Foundation Records: Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Physicians


In 1933 — the same year he was first contacted by Franz Boas about funding for scientific studies to subvert anti-Semitic claims spreading through Europe and America — banker and New York Foundation Trustee Felix Warburg also began receiving letters requesting his assistance from the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Physicians and Medical Scientists. At that time, the German National Socialist party had begun to push "non-Aryan" doctors out of practice, and in October 1938 all Jewish physicians' licenses were revoked. While many of these ostracized doctors remained in Germany, living in poverty, others were able to leave and sought employment elsewhere, including the United States, where organizations such as the Emergency Committee formed to assist them. 

Warburg was convinced of the importance of the Committee's cause and recommended that the New York Foundation provide funding, which it did very generously, with donations which would eventually total $92,500. Correspondence documenting the Foundation's involvement and support of the Emergency Committee are part of the New York Foundation records (PDF), recently donated to The New York Public Library's Manuscripts and Archives Division and now available for research.

The Emergency Committee was established in November 1933 to assist scientists and physicians displaced by the National Socialist regime in securing research and training jobs in the United States. In a letter to Warburg, the Committee's chairman, Dr. Bernard Sachs, explained the purpose of establishing the committee and its efforts "to obtain information as to where in any part of this country or in Central and South America, there are communities that would be willing to receive medical practitioners, including specialists, and to give such men and women an opportunity to develop independent practices. This last task we regard as the most difficult of all."

The Committee created a central card file with comprehensive information about refugee physicians, which was made available to hospitals, universities, and research institutes, and allowed them to independently select the most qualified candidates, for whom the Committee would then provide financial backing. The Emergency Committee later affiliated with the National Refugee Service (an organization also generously supported by the New York Foundation) and with the United Service for New Americans, and over the course of almost a decade — between 1934 and 1942 — the Committee placed 225 physicians, including those on this list sent to the New York Foundation, at institutions across the country.

Refugee physicians were not universally welcomed in America, though, and they were perceived by certain communities as a threat. In 1939, the American Medical Association estimated that there were 1,180 émigré physicians in the U.S., and between 1933 and 1943 an estimated 6,160 physicians entered the country. Although this was a negligible number in comparison to the approximately 170,000 licensed American doctors at that time, the influx of foreign doctors was perceived by some American physicians as a competitive threat, and false claims about the number of incoming doctors and their supposedly deficient training were widespread. Arriving in the wake of economic depression and widespread unemployment in the U.S., immigrant physicians often faced xenophobia and anti-Semitism when they entered the country. Many states even passed laws rendering it virtually impossible for émigré physicians to practice. The Emergency Committee addressed these concerns in its letters to potential donors, as this January 15, 1934 letter from Bernard Sachs to Felix Warburg demonstrates. 

Sachs wrote: "In carrying out its purpose, the Committee is conscious of the necessity of avoiding the displacement of American physicians or the curtailment of the opportunities for research. For this reason, it is seeking to place refugee foreign physicians only in new full time research positions in institutions where they are likely to contribute scientifically and professionally, and to provide the funds for their small stipends from sources which would otherwise not be available to these institutions."

Despite the sometimes unwelcome atmosphere, the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Physicians was able to place many prominent doctors and medical scientists — with specializations ranging from bacteriology to neurosurgery — in institutions across the country. Among those supported with the assistance of the New York Foundation were Hilde Bruch, a pediatric physician who would later become an expert on emotional problems related to eating and on childhood obesity, and Kurt Goldstein, a pioneer in neuropsychology who lectured at Columbia and Harvard, in addition to his work in private practice.


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