Sarah Vasen, born in Quincy in 1870, was probably the first Jewish woman physician in Illinois. She was the seventh child of nine and only daughter of Gerson (George) Vasen and Catherine Eschner Vasen, who married in Philadelphia in 1856 and moved to Quincy in 1867. Gerson was born in present-day Germany and was initially in the hides business in Quincy, later moving into real estate and insurance. Catherine was born in what is now the Czech Republic and devoted herself to her large family.
Sarah attended public school in Quincy until she was sixteen and then studied medicine privately for two years with Dr. Melinda Knapheide Germann, one of Quincy’s first female doctors. In 1890 Sarah enrolled in Keokuk [Iowa] College of Medicine, a state-of-the art facility. After graduating on March 8, 1892, she returned home and began practicing medicine from the family residence, 523 Chestnut. When the Adams County Medical Society met on August 13, 1894, Dr. Vasen was the secretary.
Sarah must have been very inquisitive with an independent streak. The typical path for a woman like her would have been to marry, raise a family and be an active clubwoman like her sister-in-law, Julia Eschner Vasen. As an officer of Quincy’s Hebrew Ladies’ Benevolent Society, Julia visited destitute Russian Jewish families to assess their needs and offer “friendly advice,” while Dr. Vasen treated their medical conditions. Both women participated in Quincy’s nonsectarian Woman’s Council, which in the 1890s focused on “The New or Preventative Philanthropy.” Julia Eschner Vasen was on the Board of Lady Managers of Blessing Hospital at the same time that Dr. Vasen was on the staff.
Sarah Vasen was the first female to receive an appointment at Blessing Hospital. The Quincy Herald described Sarah as “a rising young physician, fully competent to take charge of the position” of head of the Blessing Hospital maternity ward. An 1895 report by Blessing Hospital noted that its maternity ward was “the only shelter in Quincy open to destitute women in their hour of need. Many a deserted wife and deceived girl has been received and tenderly cared for in her extremity.” Nearly all women still gave birth at home attended by a midwife, but the hospital claimed that “well-to-do matrons” also used the maternity ward, “thus securing the best care at less cost than at home.”
Shortly after her mother died in 1897, Sarah moved to Philadelphia, where two uncles lived. She enrolled in postgraduate training in obstetrics and became the superintendent and physician of the Jewish Maternity Home. Established and supported by Jewish women in Philadelphia, the Home cared for Philadelphia’s poor Jewish mothers as well as babies who were sick or had lost their mothers. Dr. Vasen trained many nurses during her two years in Philadelphia, and during her tenure, the Home was modernized and acquired an incubator and sterilizer.
Dr. Vasen resigned her post and returned to Quincy in 1900, resuming her private practice and specializing in diseases of women and children. In 1901, she was reappointed to the staff of Blessing Hospital, where she was obstetrician and gynecologist, even serving a six-month stint in charge of the entire hospital. She was better qualified for her work in Quincy after her experience in Philadelphia treating patients with new approaches, training nurses and handling fiscal matters. However, in Philadelphia she had needed to take a leave of absence from her job due to illness, and back in Quincy she was suffering from a painful dermatological problem, probably psoriasis. After being a patient in Blessing Hospital for a few weeks, she consulted a skin specialist in Chicago. Either on her own volition or on the advice of this doctor she visited her brother Nathan in California in January, 1905. By March 15, she had decided to reside permanently in Los Angeles.
Upon arriving in Los Angeles, Dr. Vasen, who now was the first Jewish female physician practicing in that city, went to work at the Kaspare-Cohn Hospital, recently opened through the beneficence of a wealthy Jewish businessman and the Hebrew Benevolent Society. Initially, care was rendered free, and most patients suffered from tuberculosis. From 1906 to 1910, Dr. Vasen lived at the hospital and supervised its operation. Soon the hospital contained an incubator and was equipped to treat mothers and infants. When a new, expanded hospital relocated too far from the city center for her, Dr. Vasen resigned her position in 1910.
She then opened her own practice dedicated only to maternity patients and charged no fees to poor women who were recommended by the Hebrew Benevolent Society. In 1911 she moved her office and residence to an area where the city’s Jewish elite lived, and they became her clientele. Living at the same address, 1110 Pico Boulevard, was a 56 year-old Dutch Jew, Saul Frank. At the age of 42, Sarah Vasen retired from medicine and married Saul, eventually relocating to Glendale, CA. Sarah’s life with Saul ended tragically when he died of a heart attack in 1924. Sarah lived alone in her home for nearly twenty years until her death on August 21, 1944.
Sarah Vasen’s legacy rests in both Quincy and Los Angeles. In both places she was the first Jewish female physician. In the case of Quincy, she helped build up the maternity ward at Blessing Hospital, while in Los Angeles her tireless work at Kaspare-Cohn Hospital made it such a success, that it eventually became the world famous Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Her concern for the poor in both places knew no bounds. “A woman of valor, who can name her; for her price is far above rubies.”
Board of Lady Managers, Blessing Hospital, Minutes of 30 Oct. 1901; 30 April 1902; 27 April 1903; 30 Oct. 1903; 30 April 1904; 31 Oct. 1904.
“DIED, Mrs. B.G. Vasen,” Jewish Exponent, 11 Oct. 1901, p. 2.
“Dr. Sarah Vasen Appointed,” Quincy Herald, 3 Sept. 1895, p. 1.
Elias Eppstein, Quincy Diary, 1901-1903, 3 June 1903.
“Friends of the Sick,” Quincy Morning Whig, 16 Dec. 1894.
Hebrew Ladies’ Benevolent Society Minute Book, 19 Feb. 1894; 18 June 1894; 5 July 1894; 13 Oct. 1895; 1 April 1896.
Julie Beardsley, “Dr. Sarah Vasen: First Jewish Woman Doctor in Los Angeles, First Superintendent of Cedars-Sinai Hospital,” 2003, http://home.earthlink.ned/~nholdeneditor/Sarah%Vasen.htm.
“Local and General News,” Quincy Daily Journal, 23 April 1892, p. 8.
“Local and General News,” Quincy Daily Journal, 1 Sept. 1897, p. 7.
“Medicos in Council,” Quincy Herald, 13 Aug. 1894, p.8.
“Physicians,” Quincy Daily Journal, 27 Aug. 1900, p. 8.
Portrait and Biographical Record of Adams County, Illinois. Chicago: Chapman Bros., 1892, 236.
Report of Blessing Hospital and the Training School for Nurses, 1895. Quincy, Illinois: Hoffman Printing Co., 1895, 1.
“She [Catherine Vasen] was the making of the children.” Elias Eppstein, Quincy Diary, 1896-1898, January 10, 1897.
“The News in Brief,” Quincy Daily Journal, 31 Dec. 1904, p. 8.
“The New Philanthropy,” Quincy Daily Journal, 9 Mar. 1895, p. 5.
The Record of the Class of 1900 Keokuk Medical College, College of Physicians and Surgeons. Keokuk, Iowa: Record Committee, 1900, 10-11.