Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) was deeply saddened to learn of the loss of Carola Eisenberg, MD, one of PHR’s founding members and former PHR vice-president, who passed away on March 11 at the age of 103.
An avid advocate for ethics in medicine and public health, and a pioneer in a medical field largely dominated by men, Dr. Carola Eisenberg championed human rights for well over five decades, exposing social justice atrocities throughout Latin America and across the globe.
“Carola Eisenberg was a trailblazer in the field of social medicine, psychiatry, and the human rights movement. As a physician, she broke gender barriers to bring her extraordinary intellect, courage, and compassion to help shape the fields of medicine and human rights,” said Donna McKay, PHR executive director and longtime friend of Dr. Eisenberg. “Her extraordinary sense of humanity, joy, and her deep compassion and insight into human nature made her a profound force for good and inspired generations of medical students and human rights activists.”
Dr. Eisenberg’s commitment to human rights began at an early age, when, as a teenager in the 1930s in her native Argentina, she accompanied her father on a tour of the country’s state psychiatric hospital. The horrors she witnessed there – 3,500 patients chained to their beds – fueled her activism and she began working at the hospital. Against the odds, Dr. Eisenberg received her medical degree in 1944 from the predominately male University of Buenos Aires before completing her psychiatric training at the Hospicio De Las Mercedes. She emigrated to the United States in 1945, where she became a fellow in Child Psychiatry and later an assistant professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
“[My medical school years] were so hard for me. I did not know whether I was going to be a good physician; I did not know whether I would be able to finish,” Dr. Eisenberg said in a documentary chronicling her life and successful medical career. “I was full of uncertainties. But I made it. Half of the time I don’t know how I did do it, except that I like to persevere.”
Among the many positions she held throughout her venerable career, Dr. Eisenberg served as the first female dean of student affairs at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the first female dean for student affairs at Harvard Medical School.Dr. Eisenberg went on to be a lecturer in the department of global health and social medicine at Harvard Medical School, where she organized the first course in human rights at any U.S. medical school. Into her 90s, she was still teaching a new generation of students about the vital connection between medicine and human rights, helping to institute classes such as “How Does Medicine Apply to Human Rights Issues?” and “Race, Health and Human Rights in the U.S.” Dr. Eisenberg was also an Honorary Psychiatrist with the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and served on boards of the American Psychological Association (APA), the American Orthopsychiatric Association, and the Foundation for the History of Women in Medicine (FHWIM).
In 1983, Dr. Eisenberg and a group of physicians traveled to El Salvador on a fact-finding mission to investigate reports of atrocities and gross violations of human rights committed during the country’s civil war. Dr. Eisenberg could not forget what she witnessed, saying, “I never believed human beings could do such things to other human beings.” In 1986, she and five other doctors established Physicians for Human Rights out of a single rented room in Somerville, Massachusetts.
With her on the investigation in El Salvador was PHR co-founder Dr. Robert Lawrence. “Carola was a remarkable and inspiring woman,” said Dr. Lawrence. “She had family and friends who had been impacted by the ‘dirty war’ in Argentina. Their experiences informed and fueled her passion to call out and end abuses of human rights wherever and whenever they occurred. But she also nurtured and cared for her immediate associates. “How are you?” coming from Carola was a recurring sign of her empathy for and concern about the well-being of all who joined her in confronting the horrors of gross human rights abuses.”
When asked later about her inspiration to help form PHR, Dr. Eisenberg said, “I have talked about abuses in dictatorial regimes to some of my students … And I felt it was my moral obligation to do something about it. I have, and I hope I still have, a social conscience that made me both be truthful in political issues and express what I think and how I feel. And I just was delighted to be part of a group that could do things.”
PHR remained deeply meaningful to Dr. Eisenberg, who often referred to it as her “second child.” She played an active role in the organization and was greatly admired by her PHR colleagues.
“As a trailblazer for women in medicine and a deeply perceptive psychiatrist who was always ‘on the job,’ Carola was a mentor to many, a mother to PHR, and a guardian of our staff well-being at every level,” said PHR Director of Policy Susannah Sirkin, who knew Dr. Eisenberg for more than three decades. “Her passing leaves a huge hole in our hearts.”
“Carola was for decades an intrepid pioneer and a leader of indelible consequence in medicine, in education, and in human rights,” said PHR Board Chair Alan Jones. “We will certainly recall with awe and reverence her countless achievements and her remarkable number of firsts in so many fields, but I will always prefer to measure Carola’s impact on the world by the depth of her compassion, by the strength of her exemplary spirit of humanity, and by the unfathomable number of lives she managed to touch, to improve, to ease, and to save.”
Throughout the 1980s, Dr. Eisenberg embarked on several human rights missions to El Salvador, Chile, and Paraguay, documenting appalling war crimes against civilians and doctors. She co-founded PHR’s Asylum committee and served as vice president and chair, conducting psychiatric and primary care for asylum-seekers who fled to the United States to escape oppression and persecution in their home countries.
In her groundbreaking 1989 article for the New England Journal of Medicine titled “Medicine Is No Longer a Man’s Profession,” Dr. Eisenberg called attention to the influx of women in the medical field and criticized medical faculties for intentionally narrowing the path that would allow more women to be promoted to senior leadership positions. “We were ignored as women,” she said of her experiences in medical school. “I never experienced sexism because I learned later on the professors were so sure that we would get married and drop being in medical school that they never paid any attention.”
An inspiration for women, medical professionals, and activists around the globe, Dr. Eisenberg was awarded FHWIM’s Morani Renaissance Woman Award, Massachusetts Psychiatric Society’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and both APA’s Human Rights Award and its Distinguished Lifetime Service Award.
Until the last weeks of her life, Dr. Eisenberg remained active and outspoken, always intent on making the world a better place.
“Carola Eisenberg was a truly remarkable woman,” said Michele Heisler, PHR’s medical director and a former student of Dr. Eisenberg. “I am among the many who she inspired in the groundbreaking course she taught on health and human rights. All of us at PHR, and who work to defend health and human rights, stand on her shoulders and owe her a tremendous debt of gratitude.”
Dr. Adam Richards, a close friend and mentee of Dr. Eisenberg who served with her on PHR’s board of directors added: “Carola is survived by multiple generations of students, colleagues and friends who learned from her how to extend her caring, commitment, and hope globally: to recognize the dignity inherent in all people, and to believe that through collective action — facilitated by PHR and other groups — a better world is possible.”