Human Rights Trailblazer at 100


Today, Physicians for Human Rights celebrates the 100th birthday of one of our co-founders, Dr. Carola Eisenberg. With a career spanning well over five decades, Dr. Eisenberg has been a trailblazing physician and human rights advocate. Among her extraordinary achievements, she conducted extensive human rights investigations across Latin America, became the first female dean for student affairs at both MIT and Harvard, and, as a scholar and educator, sparked a passion for human rights across generations of scholars and colleagues.

In 1989, Dr. Eisenberg wrote a landmark piece for the New England Journal of Medicine about the influx of women in the medical profession. In the article, she chastised medical faculties for not providing pathways for women to break out of the lower ranks, calling for more women to be elevated to senior leadership roles.

“Neither I nor any other advocate of women’s rights wants to see mediocre women promoted,” she wrote. “There are all too many mediocre men around already.”

The New England Journal of Medicine has graciously agreed to make the full text of Dr. Eisenberg’s piece available on the occasion of her birthday. Click here to read more.

In El Salvador, Dr. Eisenberg documented some of the most horrific atrocities that took place in the 1980s during the country’s civil war. Among the images seared in her mind: farms leveled by napalm; a woman with a phone book stuffed into her mouth; militias gunning people down in the streets.

“I never believed human beings could do such things to other human beings,” she said. “It was like Dante’s Inferno.”

Dr. Eisenberg returned to El Salvador two more times. She also visited imprisoned doctors in Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship. There, she met a student protester who had been doused with kerosene and set alight, scorching 80 percent of her body and killing a fellow student. Dr. Eisenberg helped transfer the woman to Canada to receive care.

A native of Argentina, Dr. Eisenberg left the country before Perón’s dictatorship, but, as Argentina’s “Dirty War” continued into the 1980s, she heard stories of the violence in her home country. In an interview with the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, she said two of her medical school classmates and close friends had been killed by the government.

“A couple of years later,” she said, “someone asked me whether I wanted to be part of a new organization with four other doctors — to give voice to the people who could not afford to talk. I said yes, so that’s how we formed PHR.”

On the occasion of her 100th birthday, PHR’s Board of Directors wrote:

“From removing gender barriers in the Dean’s offices at MIT and Harvard Medical School, to investigating human rights abuses in El Salvador and Chile, to committing your time and energy to founding and nurturing PHR through its fledgling years, you have provided a moral compass and have guided us by your example.”

Today, Dr. Eisenberg continues to advise and mentor all those whose lives she touched. And, of course, she continues to serve as board member emeritus of Physicians for Human Rights. Happy birthday to one of the heroes of the human rights movement.

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