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."

Recommended Articles