March 25, 1863, is the birthdate of Simon Flexner, the medical researcher and administrator who, as the first director of the Rockefeller Institute in New York, made the place a top center of biological and medical research in the United States.
Flexner was born in Louisville, Kentucky, the son of Moritz (later Morris) Flexner and the former Esther Abraham. He was an immigrant from Neumark, Bohemia; she was born in Roden, Germany. The couple met in Louisville, where Morris started as an itinerant peddler and moved on to own a wholesale hat business.
During the 1872 recession, Morris Flexner went bankrupt, and in the years to come the family’s financial straits grew worse; the Flexners moved to increasingly impoverished neighborhoods. Simon, the fourth of nine children, was an exceedingly poor student (and apparently encountered anti-Semitism at school). He left school during the eighth grade.
Simon held, and almost as quickly lost, numerous menial jobs. At one point his father took him to the Louisville city jail to give him a taste of where he could end up.
The turning point for Simon came with a near-fatal bout with typhoid fever at age 16. When he recovered, he had a new seriousness about life.
He took an apprenticeship at a local pharmacy, which allowed him to borrow a microscope in the evenings, which he used to teach himself bacteriology at home. He went on to study pharmacy in Louisville, and in 1889, while continuing to work in the field, he earned a medical degree from Louisville Medical College.
The turn of the century was a time of great modernization and change for medical science in the United States, and Flexner, despite his atypical education, came in at a key moment. (Ironically, Simon’s brother Abraham, who later cofounded the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, wrote an important report on medical education in the United States in 1910. He proposed reforming the training program for doctors and closing most schools then in existence; one victim of the reform was the Louisville school where Simon had studied.)
From Louisville, Simon went on to study pathology at the new medical school at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He was soon running the program. By 1899 he had been invited to establish the pathology department at the University of Pennsylvania, and two years later he took a position at the new research institute being established by John D. Rockefeller in New York City – America’s first biomedical institute.
Flexner’s own research focused on fighting epidemics. He developed a serum for meningitis that reduced mortality by half. He helped identify the polio virus, a key step in coming up with a vaccine. And his lengthy study of the pancreas led to the isolation of insulin.
Under Flexner’s leadership, Rockefeller decided to open a research hospital at the institute (which became Rockefeller University in 1965), of which Flexner became director in 1924, retiring in 1935. He played roles in a number of agencies that dealt with health and education, and was a charter member of the Rockefeller Foundation.
In 1903, Flexner married Helen Thomas, from a distinguished Philadelphia Quaker family that helped establish both Johns Hopkins and Bryn Mawr College. (Bertrand Russell had proposed marriage to her several times.) She herself became a professor of English at Bryn Mawr. They had two sons – William, a mathematician, and James, a writer.
Simon Flexner died of a heart attack in New York, on May 2, 1946.
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