Jewish Exponent, “History’s Lessons: Jewish Anarchist Doctors Cared for Philadelphia’s Immigrants”

The Southern Dispensary for the Medical Relief of the Poor opened in 1816 on Shippen (Bainbridge) Street. | Photo by Steven Peitzman

Sophie Panzer, January 7, 2021

For history buffs, mentions of Jewish anarchists often conjure images of political activist Emma Goldman’s fiery speeches or assassination attempts.

However, many influential members of Philadelphia’s close-knit Jewish anarchist community in the 19th century have flown under the radar due to their relatively quiet occupations: providing health care to underserved communities.

“In Philadelphia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a large group of professionals who practiced medicine or pharmacy as a livelihood, while committing great energies to the anarchist movement,” labor activist and historian Robert Helms wrote in his Clamor Magazine article “Doctors and Druggists Among the Early Philadelphia Anarchists.” These professionals, many of whom were Jewish, treated patients, provided public health education and contributed financially to political causes.

Anarchist health care was rooted in immigration and labor activism. In the late 19th century, Russian Jews flocked to the United States to escape deadly pogroms and anti-Semitic laws.
Many settled in South Philadelphia, which was also home to Italian and Irish immigrants and African Americans.

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