Table of Contents

DR. SARAH VASEN:

FIRST JEWISH WOMAN DOCTOR IN LOS ANGELES

FIRST SUPERINTENDENT OF CEDARS-SINAI HOSPITAL

by Julie Beardsley

Copyright © April 2003. All rights reserved

 

I began doing genealogical research when my mother passed away and I realized I knew almost nothing about my family’s history. We were like many other Reform Jewish families – absorbed into American mainstream culture, not observant, and out of touch with other family members. As I began to research the family I was honored to discover that among these was a very special woman named Sarah Vasen. She was the first Jewish woman doctor in Los Angeles, and the first superintendent and resident physician of Cedars-Sinai Hospital, then known as Kaspare Cohn Hospital.

Miss Sarah was born into a large, middle-class Jewish family in Quincy, Illinois on May 21, 18701. She was the seventh child and only girl of nine children.

Her father, Gerson Vasen, was born in Meiderich, Germany (now Duisburg in the Ruhr Valley) on Oct. 3, 18352. The family moved there in the 1820’s from around Cologne, where they had lived since the 1750’s3. Oral tradition handed down suggests the family may have been Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain in the 1490’s.

At 21, Gerson left his father, Philip Vasen 4 (born 1803 in Quadrath-Ichendorf near Cologne), and mother, Fredericka Blum 5 (born 1806 in Anrath, Germany), and his ten brothers and sisters 6 in Meiderich, to travel to America. He was the only one of his immediate family to immigrate. Whether he left Germany to avoid service in the Army, for personal and family reasons or whether he had some trouble with the law, is unknown. (Gerson may have been a bit of a rascal). He sailed from Bremen and arrived in Philadelphia in 18567.

In Philadelphia, he met and courted the lovely Catherine Eschney 8 born in 1835 in Nesdaschuf, Bohemia. They were married in Philadelphia 18579. In their photographs, Gerson has a twinkle in his eye and a mischievous half-smile. Catherine’s photos reveal a strong self-possessed woman with clear intelligent eyes, wide forehead and a sensual mouth. Besides an enduring love, they must have also had a strong physical attraction for each other, as they produced nine living children.

Around 1865, Gerson and Catharine left Philadelphia and moved to the booming Mississippi River town of Quincy, Illinois. There, Gerson carried on the family tradition, starting up "Hirsch and Vasen Hides"11. In Germany, the Vasens had been traders of cattle and kosher butchers for generations12. Quincy, Illinois, lying directly across the river from Hannibal, Missouri, was a burgeoning river town - getting rich off not only from the River trade, but also from the bounty of the limitless Western lands. Hirsch and Vasen got their start in buffalo hides which were in great demand back east.

The buffalo were nearly exterminated but the Vasens prospered, investing in businesses and real estate around Quincy. Benjamin, Sarah’s oldest brother, would found the Quincy Savings and Loan13 one of the first such companies in the United States. The family members supported the Jewish benevolent society, and were active in the Reform B’nai Shalom Temple in Quincy (founded in 1865)14.

Sarah’s brothers and sisters were: Benjamin b.1857 and the author’s great-grandfather; Aaron, a ship’s steward, b. 1859; Abraham, b. 1863, who shot himself at age seventeen; Nathan, b. 1864 who moved to California; David, b. 1865 Quincy businessman; Philip Frederick, a Chicago businessman, b. 1869, Sarah herself in 1870; Jacob, b. 1872 and Gustav, b. 187415.

The family was a close knit and loving one, and its size was not unusual for the time. Sarah must have known many women who dedicated their lives to a new baby every 24 months during their fertile years, including her own mother. But Sarah chose a different path rather than marriage and endless children. Having grown up with eight brothers perhaps she felt a need to assert her individuality and independence. Perhaps she resisted being placed in the categorical box proper middle-class women were held in society at this time. Whatever her motivations, after completing high school, around 1890, Sarah crossed the Mississippi to attend what would become the University of Iowa Medical School in Keokuk, the first co-educational medical school in the country16. She specialized in obstetrics and gynecology. Unlike the intense years of training doctors now undergo, in the 1890’s imparting all the known medical knowledge of the day took students only three, six-month-long academic years!17

While it was unusual for women to enter the field of medicine, Sarah may have had a role model in the person of another pioneer woman doctor from Quincy, Dr. Abby Fox (Rooney), born 184418. Dr. Fox married Dr. Michael Rooney, one of the most prominent physicians and surgeons in the area, in 187519. Dr. Abby Fox Rooney was the first woman physician to practice in St. Mary Hospital in Quincy20, specializing in obstetrics and the diseases of women and children. Sarah must almost certainly have known her, and its possible she attended Sarah’s mother at her many births. In 1895, Dr. Rooney was elected president of the Adams County Medical Society, the only woman to have ever held the office. In 1898, she served a term as vice president of the Illinois State Medical Society21. In 1904, Dr. Rooney retired from practice and moved to Los Angeles, Calif., where her son, Dr. Henry Rooney, also born in Quincy, was a noted gynecologist and obstetrician and taught in a California medical college22.

After completing her training, Sarah returned to the family home. In a report published in 1895 by Blessing Hospital in Quincy, where her oldest brother Benjamin’s wife, Julia Eshner Vasen, is listed as serving on the Executive Committee of the hospital, Dr. Sarah Vasen is listed as the resident obstetrician.23 Also in the report, a paragraph about the maternity ward gives some insight into the Victorian mores of the time and the desperation some women must have felt, faced with the lack of control over their reproductive lives; "The (Blessing Hospital) maternity ward is the only shelter in Quincy, open to women in their hour of need. Many a deserted wife or deceived girl has been received and tenderly cared for in her hour of extremity24….

In 1898, Sarah traveled to Philadelphia and served as a superintendent and obstetrician for the Jewish Maternity Home in that city25. Founded in 1873, as a resource for poor immigrant Jewish women unable to afford medical care, the Home's overriding philosophy encouraged women to stay under a doctor's supervision for as long as possible after giving birth. Patients on average stayed for two weeks before returning to the rigors of work and family. Almost thirty-eight percent of the women admitted had five or more children at home26.


Around 1900, Sarah returned to Quincy and moved into the family home at 523 Chestnut Street by herself, where she set up a private practice27. She remained in Quincy for four years. But ready for another change, she visited her brother Nathan in California. Nathan had married Ula Brand and by 1896 they’d settled in the community of Aromas, near Watsonville28. Sarah visited San Francisco and then Los Angeles. Whether it was the orange trees, the mountains, the ocean or most of all, the weather, in 1904, she said good-bye to the freezing Illinois winters and the humid, bug-infested summers, and moved to Los Angeles.


Los Angeles' dry climate was thought to be beneficial to sufferers of consumption, many of whom had contracted the disease living in the crowded neighborhoods and slums of the Eastern cities. In 1902,  local businessman Kaspare Cohn29 (who founded the Commercial Bank, now Union Bank) along with the Hebrew Benevolent Society (founded in 1854), purchased a house at 1443 Carroll Street and opened its doors as a facility to care for people suffering from tuberculosis30. However, almost immediately the neighbors of the hospital objected to consumptives living in such close proximity and in 1904 the city passed an ordinance prohibiting the hospital from treating them. The hospital changed its focus, now providing for the needs of its non-tubercular patients.


Sarah found that her previous experience as a physician and supervisor of the Jewish Maternity Home and Blessing Hospital, had served her in good stead. In 1905, she became associated with the then 3-year old Kaspare Cohn Hospital. During the period between 1906 and 1910, Dr. Vasen lived at the Hospital on Carroll Street and supervised its operation. A newsworthy mention from the B’nai B’rith Messenger, August 31, 1906, p.3 notes –


"At Kaspare Cohn Hospital there is a baby in the incubator. It is a week old and weighs 2 ½ pounds. The superintendent, Dr. Sarah Vasen, states that it has good prospects to grow up."31

In 1906, Sarah briefly left Los Angeles and returned to Aromas to attend at the delivery of her nephew George N. Vasen, son of her brother Nathan and his wife Ula. According to her niece Florence, Nathan and Ula’s daughter, the family was glad to have the services of such a first-rate obstetrician, since family members regarded Sarah as such an excellent physician32.


Dr. Vasen’s superintendency brought her into a close and lasting relationship with Reform Congregation B’nai B’rith’s, (now the Wilshire Blvd. Temple), Rabbi Sigmund Hecht, who had been on the Board of Director’s of the Hospital since its founding in 190233. Sarah became a Congregation member and her position as Superintendent as well as Temple member allowed her to form friendships with many of Los Angeles’ prominent citizens.


In January of 1908, Max N. Newmark, president of Kaspare Cohn Hospital Association presented his annual report. He sited the 125 cases the hospital had treated over the past year, and referred to the "working force" – Superintendent Dr. Vasen, a night nurse, two day nurses, a janitor and a cook34.
In 1909, the officers of the hospital association, President Max N. Newmark; Ben R. Meyer, vice president; L. Isaacs, treasurer; A. Zeisler, secretary; Berthold Baruch, Rabbi Sigmund Hecht, J.L. Jonas, L. Goldberg, Ben Kingsbaker, Henry Klein and Joseph Miller, trustees, met and decided that the hospital had outgrown its facility35. The doctors who worked with Dr. Vasen, Philip Newmark, David W. Edelman Edmond Lazard and Adolph Tyroler, agreed. A site was purchased in East Los Angeles and plans were drawn up for a larger building by architects Abraham M. Edelman and his Nephew Leo Barnett. In July of 1909, sufficient funds were on hand to begin construction. Since the new hospital was outside the city limits at the time, one ward of the new hospital was specifically set aside for the exclusive treatment of consumptive patients. At the ceremony the cornerstone was laid by Max Newmark, with Rabbi Hecht offered the opening prayer, Dr. David Edelman spoke on the future of the new hospital, Rev. H. L. Radowitz read the Scripture lesson and Rabbi Isadore Meyers of Sinai Temple pronounced the benediction. The doctors associated with the hospital at this time were:  David. W. Edelman, (son of Rabbi Abraham Edelman), Philip Newmark, Edmond Lazard, Adolph Tyroler, Morris A. Frank, Leo Blass and Jacob C. Solomon. That year the hospital treated 166 patients36.


In 1910, Sarah decided she would not continue on as Superintendent of the new hospital. The new building on Whittier in East Los Angeles was too far from the center of the city and she had plans to open her own practice. After vacationing for a time back east, she returned to Los Angeles and it was announced that Dr. Vasen " offered her services gratis in maternity cases to the poor who are recommended by the Hebrew Benevolent Society".37 The October B’nai B’rith Messenger noted that "Dr. Sarah Vasen can be found at 935 West Temple Street. Practice devoted to maternity cases only. Phone Broadway 3049." Sarah’s home and office were at the same location, a mode of living that was a continuation of the pattern established during her years at Carroll Avenue.


Before the end of 1911, she relocated her combined office and residence to 1110 West Pico Blvd., (the location of the Staples Center now). The area was then much favored by the cities well-to-do Jewish families, who by now made up the bulk of her clients. The move was significant in another respect, because also living at this address was a newcomer to California, a retired businessman, Saul Frank, aged 56. Sarah was 42 years old and had never married, but suddenly after the proverbial whirlwind courtship she and Saul were married on January 25, 191238. Rabbi Sigmund Hecht presided over the ceremony at Temple B’nai B’rith and the ceremony was witnessed by Mrs. Sadie Radowitz.


Saul Frank was a Dutch Jew, born on May 20, 1855, the son of Simon and Semilena Spanyard Frank39. They were both natives of Holland and probably Sephardic Jews. Before retiring to California he had been in the dry goods business in the towns of Gobles and Kendall, Michigan. Their marriage certificate stated that Saul listed his occupation as "stocks and property". The gregarious bachelor and the popular medical "maiden lady" settled down in albeit belated connubial bliss.


Sarah made the decision to give up her private practice, the companionship and love as well as the financial security he provided outweighed the advantages or honors she’d enjoyed as a single woman. In 1915 they settled in Glendale, eventually buying a house at 214 N. Central Avenue. Mrs. Sarah Frank took an interest in affairs of the Jewish community in Glendale, and helped organize a religious school for the town’s Jewish children40.


But unfortunately, their life together lasted only three years. On August 24, 1924 Saul suffered a fatal heart attack. He was buried in Home of Peace Cemetery41.


For the next twenty years the widowed Dr. Vasen lived alone in Glendale, until a cerebral hemorrhage put her into Glendale Research Hospital, where she remained until her death on August 21, 1944.42 Her passing was reported in the Glendale newspaper in an obituary that referred to her as a retired physician, survived by her brother Nathan Vasen of Oakland, five nephew and one niece, Florence Vasen Kahn. (The article failed to mention the numerous nieces and nephews still living in other places around the country.)


Sarah was buried besides her beloved Saul in Home of Peace Cemetery. When the task of clearing out her things fell to her niece Florence, it was discovered that during the two decades since his death, Sarah had kept Saul’s jacket hanging over the back of his favorite rocking chair, just as he had left it on the night he was stricken.


"Thus passed from the scene Los Angeles’ first Jewish woman physician – one of the first professionals engaged by the Jewish community and paid from community funds. These many years later it is a privilege to place her in her rightful niche in Los Angeles history, as a pioneer woman in the medical profession of the city, a participant in the beginning years of one of the country’s great medical centers, a contributor to Jewish welfare in the East and in the West, a woman of independence far ahead of her times, a devoted wife, a kind, generous, and modest woman." 43
 

 

Notes

 

  1. Los Angeles County, California, death certificate of Sarah Vasen, August 21, 1944, no. 9487.

  2. Birth records, Meiderich, Duisburg, Germany.

  3. Birth and death records, Quadrath-Ichendorf, Germany.

  4. Philip died in 1867 in Meiderich. Philip Vasen’s parents were: Benjamin Vasen (or Vosen used interchangeably) born in 1795 in Quadrath-Ichendorf, near Cologne and Golda (or Gerta, Getta Vosen born 1789 in Quadrath-Ichendorf. Philip and Fredericka were married in Ruhrort, Germany.

  5. Fredericka Blum’s parents were Gerson Blum of Anrath, Germany and Olicka Seligmacher of Anrath. She died in 1870 in Meiderich.

  6. Gerson Vasen’s brothers and sisters were, Catharina, Adalheid, Sophia, Rebecca, Benjamin, Olicka, Herman, Jetta, Samuel and Helene (Lena).

  7. Passenger and Immigration records of ships arriving at Philadelphia, NARA microfilm roll 142.

  8. Catherine Eschney’s parents are unknown. She died in 1897 and is buried besides Gerson in the Valley of Peace Jewish Cemetery in Quincy, Ill.

  9. Vasen family letters and papers.

  10. Ibid.

  11. History of Quincy: http://www.iltrails.org/Adams/history/aq12bdwy.htm

  12. Vasen family letters and papers.

  13. History of Quincy Savings and Loan: http://www.alliancelibrarysystem.com/IllinoisAlive/files/qp/htm4/qpe00012.cfm

  14. . Temple B’nai Shalom, Quincy, Illinois: http://www.rootsweb.com/~iladams/churches.htm

  15. Adams County, Illinois, birth and death records.

  16. History of University if Iowa Medical School: http://www.medicine.uiowa.edu/programs/aboutus/history.html

  17. Ibid.

  18. Dr. Abby Fox Rooney: http://www.alliancelibrarysystem.com/IllinoisAlive/files/qp/htm5/qptxt004.cfm

  19. Ibid.

  20. History of St. Mary’s Hospital, Quincy, Illinois http://www.alliancelibrarysystem.com/IllinoisWomen/files/qu/htm2/quchr006.cfm

  21. Dr. Abby Fox Rooney http://www.alliancelibrarysystem.com/IllinoisAlive/files/qp/htm5/qptxt004.cfm

  22. Ibid.

  23. Blessing Hospital history – http://www.alliancelibrarysystem.com/IllinoisAlive/files/bh/htm1/bhintro.cfm

  24. Ibid.

  25. History of the Jewish Women’s Maternity Hospital –

  26. Ibid.

  27. The American Israelite, Cincinnati, March 5, 1900, p.7.

  28. Alameda County, California, death certificate of Nathan Vasen., November 23, 1946.

  29. Kaspare Cohen, aged 20, a Jewish Prussian immigrant is listed as a clerk in the 1860 Census. http://freepages.history.rootsweb.com/~casa/1860%20census.htm He was born June 14, 1839 in Loebau, West Prussia. He married Hulda Newmark and died July 17, 1872. http://freepages.history.rootsweb.com/~casa/Southwest%20Jewry.htm

  30. Origins of Kaspare Cohn Hospital: http://www.svmchc.org/wingsofangels/health/h03.html

  31. B’nai B’rith Messenger, August 31, 1906, p.3.

  32. Quote from Florence Vasen Kahn, niece, sited in First Jewish Woman Physician" by Rev Clar, Jewish Western Historical Quarterly, vol14, no. 1, Oct. 1981, pp 66-75 .

  33. History of the Wilshire Blvd. Temple: http://www.wilshireboulevardtemple.org/rabbis.htm

  34. B’nai B’rith Messenger, January 17, 1908, p.4. Max N. Newmark (1854-1932) was bornin Prussia. He was a prominent grain merchant and active in Congregation B’nai B’rith.

  35. Ibid.

  36. B’nai B’rith Messenger, November 26, 1909, pp .4-5. (In 1921 H.L. Radowitz was elected rabbi of Sinai Temple, the first congregation in Long Beach, California.)

  37. B’nai B’rith Messenger, May 13, 1910, p. 1.

  38. Los Angeles County, California marriage records of Sarah Vasen and Saul Frank.

  39. Los Angeles County, California death certificate of Saul Frank, August 4, 1924, No. 3744

  40. Report of the Federation of Jewish Charities of Los Angeles for the Year Ending December 31, 1921 (Los Angeles, 1922), p. 44.

  41. Saul Frank, death certificate, op.cit..

  42. Sarah Vasen, death certificate, op.cit.

  43. Quote from Florence Vasen Kahn, niece, sited in First Jewish Woman Physician" by Rev Clar, Jewish Western Historical Quarterly, vol14, no. 1, Oct. 1981, pp 66-75 .

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