Dr. Carola Eisenberg, a founding member of PHR, has dedicated more than five decades to advancing human rights across the globe. Into her 90s, she was still teaching a new generation of students at Harvard Medical School about the vital connection between medicine and human rights.
In the 1980s Dr. Eisenberg was among a group of physicians who traveled to El Salvador on a fact-finding mission. She will never forget the atrocities she witnessed: farms leveled by napalm; a woman with an entire phone book stuffed in her mouth; militia firing upon busy streets. “I never believed human beings could do such things to other human beings. It was like Dante’s Inferno,” Dr. Eisenberg recalls. After that trip, the doctors regrouped in a backyard in suburban Boston, where the idea for Physicians for Human Rights was born.
Dr. Eisenberg returned to El Salvador twice more; both times issuing first-hand reports on the effects of the civil war on civilians, which was used by both advocates and policymakers working to put an end to the violence. She also traveled to Chile at the height of the Pinochet regime to visit hospitals and prisons where doctors had been jailed. At one hospital, she remembers encountering a student protester with burns on 80 percent of her body. The young woman had been walking in the street with another student when they were splattered with kerosene from an open car window. A match was lit, engulfing them in flames before they were thrown in the car. She escaped, but her friend did not. Dr. Eisenberg helped transfer the young girl to Canada to receive medical care.
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. What she witnessed there – 3,500 patients chained to their beds – fueled her activism. She began working at the hospital and later became a psychiatric social worker, eventually enrolling in an almost exclusively all-male medical school in Argentina. This led to a fellowship at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where she later became an assistant professor of pediatrics and psychiatry.
In the mid-70s to early 80s, during Argentina’s “Dirty War,” Dr. Eisenberg was in the United States, afraid to speak out because her words could endanger the lives of her friends and family back home. A number of her friends already had been killed in broad daylight in Buenos Aires. So she instead channeled her moral outrage by tending to other war-torn countries, including Chile and El Salvador, where she could afford to be more outspoken.
Among the many positions she has held, Dr. Eisenberg served as MIT’s first female dean of student affairs and as the first female dean for student affairs at Harvard Medical School. Today she is a lecturer in the Department of Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, where she helped institute a course series on human rights with such classes as “How Does Medicine Apply to Human Rights Issues?” and “Race, Health and Human Rights in the US”.