Autobiographical Essays

Beate Caspari-Rosen, MD (1910 - 1995)

An Odd Story

Last week was the memorial lecture for my husband; it  takes place annually at the rare book room of Yale University’s medical school. My husband had been a famous professor of the history of medicine and public health. The speaker on this particular occasion was a young professor of the history of science in New York City, Professor David Rosner. I had not met him previously, although had written the introduction to my husband's last article, published ten years after his death. One paragraph in that article had disturbed me deeply. When I met Professor Rosner before his talk, I asked him to discuss the article with me. He had written: "He (George Rosen) believed deeply in the progress of society and its ability to correct and improve upon it. It was this tremendous faith in conscious rationality and reason that powered his extraordinarily productive life." Professor Rosner continued: "younger historians  probably do not share his assumptions regarding historical change. Nor do they have the faith in scientific and social change.” I wanted to know what the younger generation of historians and believed in. His answer startled me: "Nothing." They feel that we live-- not only in America, but in other areas of the world too--for money, and have lost a social conscience, and that the disregard for the poor is so regressive that their dreams of a better world has instead become a nightmare. I could well understand him, although I believe that ultimately there is social progress; at present, I agree that we are at a low point in ethical standards.

But then Professor Rosner turned to me and said an odd thing. "Can you believe that George, your husband, has become a part of me?" He explained his remark by telling me his life story in brief. He, too, like my husband, came from a family of immigrant Russian Jews; he grew up in New York City and went to City College, but then, rather than studying medicine, chose to attend Harvard’s School of Public Health, where in the course of his studies he read George's book The History of Public Health. It inspired and moved him so deeply, that he decided to get his doctorate in the history of public health, under a professor who had been inspired by George's ideas, too. After he got his degree he became a professor at New York University and also teaches at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York [as of 2007, he is Professor of History and Public Health and Director of the Center for the History and Ethics of Public Health at the School of Public Health, Columbia University].  Then he surprised me again, when asked "Did you live at 285 Riverside Drive before you came to New Haven?" I nodded. He said: "I live at 290 Riverside Drive across the street from your former apartment house, where a friend of mine, a physician at Mt. Sinai hospital, is living. He called me some time ago and asked me to come over. There were so many bookcases from floor to ceiling which he was pulling out, since he needed the space. Behind one of the bookcases he found some papers and a picture. Rosner looked at them and found them signed G.R., my husband's initials in his easily recognizable handwriting. And when he realized that he was standing in George's former study, now a dining room, he had the uncanny feeling that George was present and had become part of him.

When we moved out of this apartment in 1969, where we had lived for twenty-eight years, the house became a cooperative and we could have bought the apartment for $115,000 dollars; if we sold it immediately, we would have made a nice profit. But my husband did not want to be bothered. I asked Professor Rosner if he knew what his friends paid for the apartment four years ago? “Eight hundred thousand dollars,” he replied. That certainly was a missed opportunity for us.


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