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Käthe Beutler: 'Do something!'

December 02, 2019

When Bruce Beutler won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2011, he reminisced about his grandmother, telling how she had once explained this distinguished award to him. Her grandson's Nobel Prize directed medical historians' attention to the Beutler family. The life of a Jewish pediatrician who emigrated from Nazi Germany to the United States in 1935 leads through a century of political turmoil, scientific progress, and prejudices.

Drawing on the personal recollections of Bruce Beutler and his family as well as autobiographical manuscripts and archival sources, Professor Sabine Hildebrandt from the Harvard Medical School and four other authors illustrate how these circumstances and conditions shaped the life of the physician before and after her emigration. Their study, entitled "Dr. Käthe Beutler, 1896 - 1999," has now been published in the Medizinhistorisches Journal ("Medicine and the Life Sciences in History"). One of the co-authors, Dr. Thomas Kammertöns, is a researcher at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC). Kammertöns, together with Professor Gerhard Gaedicke and other colleagues at the Charité, initiated in 2016 a symposium on the fate of Jewish physicians in general and on the Beutler family in specific. "There wasn't even a Wikipedia entry for Käthe Beutler in 2011," says Kammertöns. "The study is the first article in the field of medical history to extensively examine the life of Käthe Beutler and her family."

Family and professional life in Berlin

"Do something!" was one of her favorite things to say. And Käthe Beutler truly adhered to this dictum: As one of 251 women among a total of 2,560 medical students, she began her studies at Friedrich-Wilhelm-Universität in 1918, where she earned her doctorate, became a researcher, and worked as a physician at the Charité with renowned professors of the day, including Finkelstein and Czerny. Among her main interests were infant nutrition and social medicine, and she published an article in a medical journal about the effectiveness of a medication against congenital syphilis when combined with good nutrition and care of children with the disease.

Käthe Beutler married the Jewish internist Dr. Alfred Beutler in 1925, and they had three children: Friedrich, Ernst, and Ruth. The Beutlers were among those secular Jewish households who at Christmastime displayed the menorah and the Christmas tree side by side. The upbringing and education of her children were very important to Käthe Beutler. Her eldest son originally attended a Montessori school, which was an unusual choice at the time. After the Nazi regime closed the school, Käthe Beutler sent her children to a Zionist school, probably to protect them from anti-Semitic hostility, where they learned Hebrew and more about their Jewish heritage. It is likely that Käthe Beutler considered settling in Palestine at the time, but she kept other options open: She hired a British nanny so that her children could learn English.

Although Alfred Beutler was the chief breadwinner in the family, Käthe Beutler continued her profession after marriage. Around a year after her first son was born, she opened her own, initially private, pediatric practice in Berlin under her maiden name of Italiener - thus asserting her independence. She also treated children from prominent non-Jewish families, such as Harald Quandt, Magda Goebbels' son from her first marriage.

While Hildebrandt was studying the life of Käthe Beutler, she was surprised to learn that there was a period in Germany, specifically in the 1920s in Berlin, when a woman like Beutler was able to freely live out the roles of doctor, wife, and mother. "That possibility was completely taken away from most women, especially Jewish women, in 1933 by the National Socialists," says Hildebrandt. "Many decades passed before this freedom was restored, though it may not yet have returned to the same level."

This period in which Käthe Beutler was able - as a professional woman, mother of three children, and member of the German-Jewish bourgeoisie - to develop herself personally and professionally ended abruptly in 1933. She saw no chance under the National Socialist regime for securing an adequate education for her children. She had to witness how her mentors Otto Pick and Heinrich Finkelstein were forced into retirement because of their Jewish heritage and how family members were interrogated by the Gestapo. She lost her statutory health insurance accreditation and was only allowed to treat private patients. When a mother refused to let the pediatrician treat her children because she was Jewish, Käthe Beutler became the driving force behind her family's emigration from Germany.

Alfred Beutler was willing to listen to his wife and was also soon convinced of the need to emigrate. He chose the United States, where a cousin of his living in Milwaukee sponsored the family. Faced with the financial restrictions imposed on Jewish emigrants by the Nazi state, Käthe Beutler smuggled around 10,000 Reichsmarks out of the country in order to rescue at least a portion of the family's money. The couple even managed to take their piano and part of their medical equipment with them, though they had to leave a number of assets behind. On January 1, 1936, Käthe Beutler arrived in New York Harbor with her children, where Alfred Beutler, who had left several months earlier, was waiting for them.

In their new homeland

The Beutler family settled in Milwaukee. Alfred Beutler was soon able to practice medicine again, thanks to the fact that the accreditation requirements for foreign medical personnel were less restrictive in Wisconsin than in most other U.S. states. He passed the necessary examinations, and it wasn't long before his practice was running as well as it had in Berlin. Käthe Beutler also opened her own private pediatric practice in 1937. According to the study, this was an exception among dual-doctor marriages: In only three of nine such marriages were both spouses able to return to their previous professions in their new homeland. As a female physician in the United States, and a Jew and foreigner to boot, Beutler found herself fighting double and triple prejudices. She received support from neither male colleagues nor the other emigrants living there. On top of this came the foreign language, plus she had to do household chores and look after her three children, tasks that in Europe had been handled in part by hired help. Although Käthe Beutler the physician never resumed her former level of activity, she never stopped identifying with her profession. According to her son Ernst, when someone would mistake her for a nurse, she would reply, "No, I'm a doctor."

Hildebrandt says that what she admires about Käthe Beutler was her ability to adjust to new circumstances over and over again, without sacrificing her priorities, which mainly included her family. Käthe Beutler proved this once again at the age of 65, when she decided to leave Milwaukee after the death of her husband in 1962. She sold the practices and the mink farm and moved to California, where her children Ruth and Ernst lived with their families. She never practiced medicine again, but instead tended to Bruce and her nine other grandchildren, giving them piano lessons and helping them with their career paths. "She was the force that held the family together, the ultimate matriarch who made sure we came together and kept our family bonds strong," recalls her great-granddaughter Rhian Beutler. She passed on her scientific curiosity to her children and grandchildren - for example, to Friedrich, Ernst, and Bruce, who all pursued careers in research and became leading figures in their fields. She learned to use a computer when she was 80 years old and managed her finances herself. Käthe Beutler died in 1999 at the age of 103.

Berlin commemorates an extraordinary woman

Käthe Beutler was a married pediatrician who succeeded in reestablishing her medical practice in her new homeland. Despite this rare achievement, the history of the Beutler family had not previously been thoroughly researched. Hildebrandt and her colleagues chronicle the story of Käthe Beutler's life and the experiences of her family members in the context of the social situation which Jews faced in the Weimar Republic, during the Nazi regime, and as emigrants in the United States. The team of authors also examines the professional career of Alfred Beutler, the family's origins, and the fate of family members who remained in Germany. "The study expands our knowledge of the life of female physicians before and after their emigration from Nazi Germany," writes the research team.

A new research facility on the Berlin-Buch campus will carry the name of Käthe Beutler. Researchers of the Berlin Institute of Health (BIH) will move into the Käthe Beutler Building in 2020. Kammertöns and other Berlin scientists initiated the installation of commemorative plaques in front of Käthe Beutler's former Berlin practice and apartment, at what is today Theodor-Heuss-Platz 2. These so-called Stolpersteine - literally, stumble stones - are memorials to the building's former residents: Käthe, Alfred, their sons Friedrich and Ernst and their daughter Ruth. Berlin was also where the idea for a book about the Beutler family was born. With the support of her co-authors, Hildebrandt published a German biography of Käthe Beutler in 2019 with the publisher Hentrich & Hentrich.

Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association

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