In 1950, a few years after becoming an intern at what was then Newark Beth Israel Hospital, Dr. Victor Parsonnet began collecting a wide variety of its papers, books, and records, along with his own memories of a lifetime serving patients.
They include handwritten copies of patients’ medical records between 1927 and 1933 prepared by his father, Dr. Eugene Parsonnet.
There is a bound copy of the Newark Beth Israel Hospital Medical Journal from 1953, steno pads recording hospital income from 1925 to 1937, and a program from the hospital’s 50th anniversary dinner-dance in November 1951.
Now, at the age of 90, the pioneering heart surgeon is donating many of those items to the Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey, influenced partly by a suggestion of former President Bill Clinton.
“Years ago I attended one of the Renaissance Weekends,” a gathering of artists, scientists, academics, and political leaders Clinton sponsored, Parsonnet told NJ Jewish News in a March 17 interview at what is now Newark Beth Israel Medical Center.
“President Clinton said that men and women have a responsibility before they leave this coil to write down who you are for your family. So I did.”
Those family members include his daughter, Dr. Julie Parsonnet, who is a professor of medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine in California, and a grandniece studying at Rutgers “who is curious and would positively want to read them.”
But because both of his grandfathers, Victor Parsonnet and Max Danzis, were founders of the Beth in 1901, he is determined to share his memoirs with a wider world.
Linda Forgosh, JHS executive director, was eager to give the Parsonnet papers a safe home in the JHS archives on the Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany.
“They enable us to tell as complete a story as we can about one important part of the history of hospitals in America,” said Forgosh. “They are original documents that are not going to come again.”
“For us at the historical society it is a point of pride because it is here. It is one of our larger collections and the most complete collection of documents of New Jersey’s first and only Jewish hospital.”
The Beth was the first Newark hospital to accept black and Jewish doctors. For decades it has been one of America’s pioneering surgical centers.
Many of the records revolve around Danzis and date back to the 1920s.
“He has written all sorts of professional manuscripts,” said Parsonnet, glowing with family pride. “He was one of the first doctors in this country to do gall bladder surgery [around 1904], and he presented papers on embolism at the British Medical Society in the 1920s.”
Among Danzis’s writings were articles on anti-Semitism in medicine and the plight of refugee physicians from war-torn Europe in the early 1940s.
Danzis moved to America from Ukraine at age 17. “He had only one ruble in his pocket, but within 10 years, he was married, had a child — who became my mother — and founded this hospital, even though he did not speak English when he got off the boat,” said Parsonnet.
“My other grandfather, Victor Parsonnet, died in 1920. He dropped dead at the age of 48. That is one of the reasons I got interested in sudden death.”
That interest led him to become a pioneer in the development of the pacemaker, the heart transplant, and the artificial heart. “Heart surgery began as a specialty in the late 1950s. So I was lucky; I was in the right place at the right time for everything,” he said.
His 100-page manuscript of his years practicing medicine at the Beth covers everything from romantic relationships between interns and nurses at the hospital to his cringing at dissections and autopsies. He recalls his enjoyment in learning Latin, “which provided an understanding of normal and abnormal anatomical and disease processes.”
Parsonnet estimates he has performed some 3,000 surgical procedures, from a hernia operation on a baby when he was a “terrified” intern to what would be his last procedure, installing a pacemaker three years ago.
He said many operations, especially in his field of cardiac surgery, have made the Beth “the busiest hospital in New Jersey.”
“They accounted for the Beth Israel’s ability to succeed in Newark in the late 1960s and ’70s despite the bad reputation of the 1967 Newark riots” and the rising popularity of suburban medical centers, he wrote.
In 1996, Newark Beth Israel Hospital was sold to Saint Barnabas Healthcare System; proceeds were used to establish the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey, which retains strong ties to the Greater MetroWest Jewish community.
Parsonnet said he has no personal sense of the “God complex” that some surgeons feel when they literally hold another person’s life in their hands. “I am helping somebody,” he said emphatically. “I have a job to do.”
But, rebutted Forgosh, “that is like having the power of God in your hands; I don’t care what anybody says.”