Academics and Research

Professor’s book examines role of Jewish physician in early treatment of TB

While it’s common knowledge that “gold-fever” attracted settlers to Colorado in the 1800s, few people realize that an entirely different sort of affliction contributed to the state’s early growth, according to DU’s Jeanne Abrams, a professor of Judaic studies.

Colorado’s fresh, dry air, frequent sunshine and high altitude made it a natural haven for tuberculosis sufferers in the late 19th century. Although Robert Koch identified the bacteria responsible for tuberculosis — also known as consumption or the white plague — in 1882, many physicians still considered the ‘proper environment’ to be an effective weapon against the disease.

In her new book, Dr. Charles David Spivak: A Jewish Immigrant and the American Tuberculosis Movement (University Press of Colorado, 2009), Abrams recounts the story of Spivak, a philanthropist who took the socialist ideals that contributed to his exile from Russia and applied them to his work as a physician treating tuberculosis.

In the late 1800s, receiving treatment for tuberculosis was nearly impossible for members of the lower classes due to the high-cost of private sanatoriums and the absence of public hospitals. “The Jewish community was the first to step forward and fill this void,” Abrams says, noting that a group of wealthy Reform Jews of German descent started the National Jewish Hospital for Consumptives in Denver in 1899.

Operating under the motto “None may enter who can pay — None can pay who enter,” National Jewish offered treatment to anyone in the early stage of the disease free of charge.

As a socialist and traditional Jew, however, Spivak took issue with some of the hospital’s policies, including their refusal to treat individuals with advanced tuberculosis and the absence of a kosher kitchen.

In 1904, Spivak, along with members of Denver’s Jewish working class, created the Jewish Consumptives Relief Society (JCRS).

The JCRS, although formally nonsectarian, offered a more traditional environment for Orthodox patients and treated individuals in all stages of the disease, adhering to the motto: “He who saves one life saves the world.”

Abrams has dedicated much of her career to providing a broader perspective of the American Jewish experience by researching Jewish history in the West.

“Many people think Jewish life only flourished on the East Coast,” Abrams says. “It’s been my mission to demonstrate that there was a vibrant Jewish community in the West.”

Abrams’ fascination with Spivak stems from research she conducted in the early 1980s on the JCRS, the subject of her doctoral dissertation, and from her previous books Blazing the Tuberculosis Trail (Colorado Historical Society, 1991) and Jewish Women Pioneering the Frontier Trail (New York University Press, 2006).

Like Abrams’ past research, Dr. Charles David Spivak illuminates a neglected facet of history, American University history Professor Alan Kraut says.

“The history of medicine is often overlooked, and tuberculosis was a fierce and killer disease,” Kraut says. “Spivak’s story is in part an immigrant success story about a man with great social commitment who did a lot for the people he came in contact with. It’s a very important contribution to social history and the history of social medicine.”

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