Our Partnership with Jewish Medical Health Professionals Archive

The Yorkshire Jewish Medical Health Professionals Archive is a repository of the medical history of Jewish doctors, dentists, nurses, pharmacists, and more from the Jewish community in Leeds. The Yorkshire Jewish Medical Health Professionals Archive documents the work of Jewish medical professionals in Yorkshire. Here at The Thackray Museum of Medicine, we are pleased to work with them, Dr Jack Gann (Assistant Programmes Curator) gives us the lowdown.

We’re working with the Yorkshire Jewish Medical Health Professionals Archive to share the stories of the healthcare heroes from one of Leeds’s oldest migrant communities.

A small team of dedicated volunteers have been digging into the history of local Jewish doctors, dentists, nurses, pharmacists, and more, collating data from archives, directories and registers, and conducting interviews with medical professionals and their living relatives. They have created a repository of stories and memories of the community’s medical history. We’re excited to share some of these stories with you.

The origins of the Jewish community in Leeds are commonly traced back to the founding of the first official synagogue in the city in 1846, but the oldest person in the Archive dates back almost a century further. A jeweller named Moses Levi could be found advertising his shop on Briggate in 1758. According to his advert in the pages of the Leeds Intelligencer: “He sells all Sorts of Spectacles and Spring-Glasses, and repairs them in a complete Manner.” In an age before an optician was its own profession, this is where you would have to go for problems with your eyesight.

Unfortunately, we don’t know much more about Moses than this. But the archive can give us greater detail about the Jewish people who practiced medicine here in Leeds in the more recent past.

By the 1940s, Leeds’s Jewish community numbered over 20,000 people. At almost 5% of the local population this was a larger proportion of Jewish people than lived in any other city in the country. Despite the barriers of discrimination and antisemitism many of them made successful careers in medicine.

Some of the amazing stories that the archive researchers have already uncovered include that of Hugo Droller, who worked right where the museum is today. The son of a German merchant, Hugo qualified as a doctor in Munich in 1933. Nazi persecution forced him to leave for Britain almost immediately afterwards. Here he requalified and moved to Yorkshire. As a German immigrant, he was briefly interned on the Isle of Man after the outbreak of the Second World War, but went on to serve in the Royal Army Medical Corps in Africa. In 1950 he arrived in this building, then part of St. James’s Hospital, as Leeds’s first consultant in geriatric medicine. He later described how:

“I came to Leeds, to a Victorian workhouse. The only impressive thing about it was the façade and the front staircase. I began with 1300 beds and one staff … the conditions appalling, with overcrowding and lack of privacy the most worrying.”

That impressive façade and staircase is the main thing that remains here of the hospital building from the time of Dr. Droller’s arrival. He transformed everything else. Under his tenure the standard of care for the elderly in Leeds improved dramatically, adding staff, establishing outpatient clinics, occupational therapy and a gym for rehabilitation.

Occupational therapy for geriatric in and outpatients at St. James’s Hospital, 1950s

Dr. Arnold Zermansky, one of the people behind the Yorkshire Jewish Medical Health Professionals Archive, was taught by Dr. Droller as a medical student. “His ward rounds lasted hours, because he was a kindly man and took the time to chat with each patient,” Arnold recalls.

Another local hero who fled Nazi oppression to find a new life and a career in medicine was Elisabeth Bernheim. A shopkeeper’s daughter, Elisabeth was in Berlin for Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass” in which Nazi rioters smashed and ransacked Jewish-owned shops and businesses. Her brother Kurt was sent to Britain as part of the kindertransport, the evacuation scheme for Jewish child refugees. It was harder for adults, but Elisabeth was able to come to Britain as a maid. Her parents remained behind. It was not until after the war that Elisabeth discovered they had been killed during the Holocaust.

In the years that followed, Elisabeth, who had worked in a kindergarten in Germany, trained in midwifery at St. James’s Hospital. She served as a community midwife for the Headingley area up until her retirement in 1980. Across her career she delivered over 1100 babies.

Hugo Droller, Moses Levi and Elisabeth Bernheim are just a tiny sample of the hundreds of Jewish doctors, opticians, midwives and other medical professionals who have cared for the people of Leeds across the years.

If you or any of your family have any stories, memories or family history of Jewish medical practitioners in Leeds or Yorkshire in general, do not hesitate to get in touch with the Yorkshire Jewish Medical Health Professionals Archive via Arnold Zermansky (email: [email protected], phone: 0113 268 3802). They would love to record more of these people’s lives. Watch this space as we’ll have plenty more to share.