Ex-Med School Dean Defends Human Rights


Dr. Carola Eisenberg takes the road less traveled by-from the dirt roads of Latin American villages ravaged by war to halls at Harvard Medical School which, before her arrival in 1969, were unaccustomed to the tread of a female dean of students.

A native of Argentina, Eisenberg pursued medical studies at a time when women went to school only until about age 12 unless training for a "practical" career such as teaching. Eisenberg's parents supported the career choice, but distant relatives and close friends chastised her, saying she would "have trouble finding a husband once [she'd] seen a cadaver" and that she "probably would faint when [she] saw blood."

"The first time I saw a cadaver, I was scared I would faint," Eisenberg recalled during a recent interview at her Cambridge home.

"They lifted the sheet, and I heard a 'thud' behind me," Eisenberg laughed, her dark eyes shining, "It was the young man beside me-he'd fainted."

Eisenberg's career has taken her far, from her first operating room in South America to some of the most prestigious universities in the world to the sites of great violence and oppression.

Eisenberg has continually challenged the roles of women in science while working to expand the role of medicine in defending human rights. She has remembered the value of pursuing her own dreams and has made it her life's work to ensure that others are able to do the same.

Medicine, Human Rights and the Physician

Although Eisenberg stepped down as dean of students at the Medical School several years ago, she continues to teach there and work to forward international human rights. Her latest class, "Medicine, Human Rights and the Physician," reflects many of the values Eisenberg has struggled to preserve over the course of her career.

"This is the only formal course in medicine and human rights to be taught at a medical school in the U.S.," says Suzanna Sirkin, deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights, an organization Eisenberg helped found along with five other physicians 11 years ago and now directs as vice president.

Although similar interdisciplinary courses have been taught at other institutions-such as a course in Health and Human Rights at U.C.-Berkeley-Eisenberg's course is unique in that, much like Physicians for Human Rights, its focus is on heightening the medical community's awareness of human rights violations.

As Vice President of Physicians for Human Rights, Eisenberg has traveled to war-torn regions of Chile, El Salvador and Paraguay, painstakingly chronicling the death and despair she witnessed there.

"The things I saw in the jails and the hospitals after [massacres] were horrible. It took every strength in me to help relatives of the dead whose voices had been silenced or shattered," Eisenberg says of her work with post-traumatic stress victims.

"The research that physicians like Dr. Eisenberg have done serves to preserve a record of human rights violations," Sirkin says.

"She has made trips to Chile to visit doctors imprisoned due to their human rights advocacy and to El Salvador where she participated in a delegation that looked at various aspects of political conflict," she adds. "In a sense she was using her skills as a psychiatrist and her sense of trauma, but increasingly she and other physicians have become human rights leaders at the forefront of efforts to integrate human rights concerns into education."

Research trips such as Eisenberg's generate organization newsletters concerning human rights struggles from torture to genocide, refugee health crises and prison conditions.

"We would be talking and hear submachine guns in the background," she says, recalling the plight of the innocent victims of political unrest. "Those are the people that deserve the credit, not us. We [doctors] just bring back the stories in detail to get those in the U.S. involved."

Charting a Course

Eisenberg traces her interest in the mental welfare of others to her own history and the fact that both her mother and grandparents immigrated to Argentina from Eastern Europe at a time when Jewish families were being actively persecuted.

"My maternal grandfather left Russia with only money for one ticket-to America," Eisenberg says.

However, Eisenberg's grandfather contracted conjunctivitis in steerage and immigration officials mistook the innocuous eye infection for a more serious illness and directed him elsewhere.

"The people at Ellis Island gave him a map and said 'pick,' so he chose Argentina-the only other country he knew, where, like America, the streets were said to be paved with gold and you could make a fortune for your family," she says.

Eisenberg was raised in an atmosphere of tolerance, without religious obligations or academic limitations enforced at home.

"My parents convinced us that the most you can do is give to others," she says, recalling how hard work at Liceon Nacionale de Senoritas and then the School for Social work paid off when she was admitted to the University of Buenos Aires, where she spent eight years obtaining her doctorate in child psychiatry.

Soon after, Eisenberg arrived to the U.S. by way of the same troubled immigration process that-decades before-drove her grandfather away.

In order to accept a post-doctoral fellowship to study with Anna Freud in London, Eisenberg attempted to travel to England but was redirected due to housing shortages and logistical difficulties. In the end, Eisenberg turned to the world map, just as her grandfather had, choosing the best child psychiatry program available at the time as her destination-Johns Hopkins University.

There she worked for several years in the field of infant autism, married and had two children-both sons-who have pursued careers in psychiatry and pediatrics. She eventually chose to take time off to spend with her family.

Although Eisenberg managed part-time medical work, private practice and home life, she said female medical or pre-med students should plan their futures-and families-more carefully.

"In my days the usual answer when people would compliment us was 'Oh, I was in the right place at the right time,' but women today are much better planners," she says, urging female students to select medical schools or programs that will provide adequate mentors and room for creative thought.

"It's not so hard to coordinate once you find the time. However, if you don't begin now it only gets harder. If you want to rebel, to question, you must begin now because you only become more complacent with time," she says.

A Dean and a Confidant

After a second marriage, Eisenberg followed husband Leon Eisenberg to Cambridge where he accepted a position as a professor at the Medical School and Chief of Child Psychiatry at Children's Hospital.

Eisenberg soon began working at the MIT Health Service, teaching psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and exploring the atmosphere of 1960s MIT.

"As students were protesting Vietnam, I became much more interested in the political side of life [at MIT]," she says. "It was just then that [MIT administrators] asked me to become dean."

Eisenberg says she did not feel torn between her humanitarian values and student protests, since students were on the whole "well behaved" and more concerned with government powers than campus administration. She says her greatest challenge during years at MIT was facing the unknown, unnamed hazards of being the first female dean.

"I was the first to do all kinds of things," Eisenberg says, "And while in some ways it was easier for me than for women entering the field now, we were very few then and we were being watched very carefully."

Eisenberg used her eight years at MIT to probe student life on campus in order to forward the cause of women and minority students.

"They were exhilarating years for me," she says. "I had been feeling since I came [to the U.S.] that I needed to help a larger group of people, to broaden my panorama of student life, and this gave me a chance to create a community more friendly to minorities and women."

It was at MIT that Eisenberg began hosting her now famous student dinners, welcoming small groups into rooms filled with the sights and sounds of the world, where ebony sculptures from Africa keep company with plush Oriental rugs and scents of paella-her specialty dish of rice, yellow saffron and chicken or "whatever you have in the house"-fill the air.

During her first years as dean of student affairs at Harvard Medical School (HMS), Eisenberg had many such cozy dinners, eventually inviting the entire first and second year classes to her home in 25-person groups.

"They were completely free and they began to trust me," Eisenberg says of the informal dinner meetings and discussions.

Eisenberg stresses the importance of developing strong relationships with faculty for women headed towards careers in medicine.

"It's particularly important in medicine since there are so many fields undergoing such rapid changes," she says. "However, the quality of the mentor should be more important than their particular specialty, since [student] interests often change drastically once they enter [medical] school."

Since Eisenberg was followed in the post of dean of students at Harvard Medical School by Dr. Edward Hundert in 1990, both administration and advising systems for students have been restructured. While Eisenberg's role was to serve the entire student body, the school now divides entering classes into five groups, assigning each class an administrative advisor, or master.

The new system allows Associate Dean of Students Nancy Oriol, who studied at HMS during Eisenberg's tenure and was appointed dean in July-greater scope in defining student needs, although she hopes to follow Eisenberg's example in focusing on specific student concerns.

"She really had a passion for medicine, encouraging people to have a life and at the same time pursue a career in medicine," Oriol says. "Her energy and commitment to being a role model in medicine was clear."

A Homecoming

It was Eisenberg's upbringing in an environment of strong free thought that brought her to medical school, and it was her compassion for fellow human beings that took her past her first cadaver to a career of helping people the world over that she never could have dreamed.

Though her childhood home fostered the determination to succeed against all odds, Eisenberg avoided returning to Buenos Ares for years because she did not feel strong enough to face a dictatorial regime that had made her homeland a "victim" of aggression and suppression.

However, for her birthday on Sept. 15, Eisenberg's son gave her a one-week trip to Argentina. She is now looking forward to returning home in November.

"I left when women were not even allowed to vote," Eisenberg recalled. "I'm eager to see the progress women have made."

"My parents covinced us that the most you can do is give to others."  --Dr. Carola EisenbergPhoto Courtesy Physicians for Human RightsHUMANITARIAN MEDICINE: CAROLA EISENBERG (center) aids a patient on a trip to El Salvador.