Displaced Scholars

VI – The Flexners

 Moritz, Esther, 7 boys and 2 girls

Three brothers from a family of nine children, born in Louisville Kentucky to the “48-er” Moritz Flexner, dominated the Rockefeller-Carnegie-Morgan establishment in the first half of the 20th century as so few would ever do. Moritz Flexner immigrated to the United States from Bohemia in 1848 on a wave of revolutionary spirit that swept many of the new Marxist rebels into armed confrontations that led to their flight abroad, escaping capture. In his new life as a “peddlar”, Moritz married Esther, and settled into raising a family. Their first son, Jacob, established a neighborhood pharmacy where Simon, the elder of the middle boys, went to work after a short career as a juvenile delinquent. Simon Flexner (1863-1946) became the director of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York City after a two year stint as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He remained the RIMR’s director until his retirement in 1936 and is known for infamously imprinting his style and research interests on the Rockefeller.

Bernard Flexner (1865-1945) received an education in law at Louisville University, alma mater to Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis who was also the son of Jewish immigrants.  In his career, Bernard was an industry and contracts counselor (to Samuel Insull who was president of Chicago Edison and a notorious utilities mogul), and a collaborator with Felix Frankfurter and Roger Baldwin in the creation of the ACLU. In 1917, Bernard helped to organize the Red Cross Mission to Romania, which had important business to do with the Bolsheviks in St. Petersburg in September of that year http://citizen2009.wordpress.com/the-red-cross/.  By November, he continued his travels to England on behalf of the Zionist Organization of America. Following the armistice, Flexner went to Paris as a signer for the ZOA and representative of the Balfour letter. In New York, where he remained active throughout his adult life, he was one of the original members of the CFR, established in 1921. In 1922, he became the founding president of the Palestine Economic Corporation which was created to buy and ship hard goods for the colonization of Israel. As Hitler rose to power in Germany, Bernard Flexner joined the executive ranks of the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Jewish Scholars. Also on the general committee was Bernard’s younger brother Abraham.

Abraham Flexner (1866-1959) was a 2-yr graduate of the new Johns Hopkins University of the humanities, and went on to found a private boys highschool in Louisville. With Abraham’s help, older brother Simon, a self-taught microbioligist, received a fellowship in the biology lab of William Welch at JHU. Years later, when Simon was the director of the RIMR, Abraham was helped to the presidency of both the Rockefeller and Carnegie General Education Board(s). Carnegie sponsored Abraham to undertake a survey of North American medical education which he accomplished in a series of rapid-fire excursions and published in the Carnegie Bulletin #4, known as the “Flexner Report”. The report was used as the basis for evaluating grants from both the Carnegie and Rockefeller foundations, famous for restricting and standardizing medical education in the “German” model. Flexner applied his brand of ‘reform’ to all public education in the U.S. In 1930, with funding from the Bamberger family, Abraham Flexner founded the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey which became a neighbor of the New Jersey division of the Rockefeller Institute, and a home to selected displaced scholars.


 Simon Flexner (b.Mar25, 1863 – d.May02, 1946)

As a teen, Simon worked in the pharmacy of his older brother Jacob where he taught himself microbiology. In 1890 he received an appointment to study at the lab of William H. Welch at Johns Hopkins University. The Governor of Maryland requisitioned  S.F. to study cerebro-meningitis in 1893, later leading to his most significant contribution to medicine, a meningitis vaccine, tested on the soldiers of Fort Riley Kansas in the winter of 1918. It appears that between 1893 and 1895, S.F. may have been in Europe in Prague and Strasburg. In 1895, Skull-and-Bonesman Welch appointed S.F. to teach at the new Johns Hopkins Hospital (until 1898), thereafter S.F. traveled on  medical missions;  to the Philippines in 1899 and other locations. The City of San Francisco experienced Bubonic Plague outbreak beginning in 1900 and Flexner was sent in 1901 along with Milton Rosenau (chief of the pre-NIH) and Llewylls Barker (UChicago) as the Federal Commission on Plague. Following the duties in California, Flexner returned to a professorship at the University of Pennsylvania, though he left this post  to become the Director of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, hired by William Welch as a second choice after first choice, Theobald Smith (Schmitt), declined. In 1903, Simon married Helen Whitall Thomas from a Quaker family of “Maryland aristocracy”. Helen’s sister, M. Carey Thomas, was the dean of Bryn Mawr College.

Simon Flexner spent the rest of his career as the Director of the RIMR. He hand-picked his staff and ruled with an iron fist, noted for ‘hovering’ over the associates’ work who were admittedly afraid of him. A profile of his character and some of the momentous events in the RIMR are given in the book “The Great Influenza” by John Barry who writes that S.F. was “mean and ruthless”. In 1913, S.F. became president of the Carnegie Institute and an officer in the newly established Rockefeller Foundation. During the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919, the RIMR became the US Army Auxilliary Lab #1, a status that was never revoked. It does not appear in any biographical record, however the distribution of meningitis vaccine in Fort Riley by Rockefeller administrator Frederick Gates is noted in the Simon Flexner Papers collection at the American Philosophical Association http://www.amphilsoc.org/library/mole/f/flexner2.htm. After WWI, Flexner was apprised of “post-vaccinal” encephalitis caused the vaccine, but no action is known to have been taken. S.F.’s meningitis vaccine was considered a great success, his enduring legacy, and no one has ever improved on his record of ‘prevention’.

Simon Flexner is credited as a discoverer of poliovirus along with the Austrian Karl Landsteiner, in 1908; he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in this year. In 1911, S.F. announced to the New York Times that he was very near  to a polio vaccine breakthrough, which never occurred. Medical researchers criticized S.F. and the Rockefeller for ‘holding up’ the progress. When Flexner retired in 1936, RIMR colleague Albert Sabin continued the vaccine research after his relocation to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. Throughout Simon Flexner’s career at RIMR he edited the official journal, the Journal of Experimental Medicine (JEM) originally founded in 1896 by William H. Welch  (who was the RIMR’s President) and a record of many of Flexner’s publications are extant in the online JEM. Before the Great Influenza of 1918, Flexner played a crucial role in the crisis response of NYC to the 1916 Polio Epidemic. He served as the Public Health Commissioner for New York State.  The entire issue of the April 1917 JEM is a reflection of NYC’s 1916 outbreak. In 1919, Flexner was elected to Britain’s Royal Society.

Simon and Helen had two sons, William and James.  James Thomas Flexner, co-authored “William H. Welch and the Rise of Modern Medicine” with his father and is in the Who’s Who in America as an historian, writing over 20 books on art, US history, and biographies, including his parents and himself http://fordhampress.com/detail.html?session=e093573e3c08b9d2101be04b2982b4dd&cat=15&id=9780823216611. William Welch Flexner went to Princeton for graduate study in 1926, receiving a PhD in 1930; he has had his oral interview transcripts ‘sealed’ until the year 2020 http://www.princeton.edu/~mudd/finding_aids/mathoral/pm04.htm


 Bernard Flexner (b. 1865 – d. 1945)

Bernard studied law at Louisville College. Biographical details are scattered and sketchy for the most part, perhaps due to his ‘ardent zionism’ and efforts to shield his activities.  In 1912 he was hired by Chicago utilities magnate Samuel Insull as legal counsel. Insull organized a conglomerate called “Midwest Utilities” presumably on the advice of Flexner who was employed by Insull to c. 1919. Insull’s over-extension of his empire eventually led to his complete downfall and personal ruination, wherein he fled the United States. At the time of the US entry into WWI, in 1917, B.F. was keeping a residence in New York City with his sister Mary. In August of 1917, Flexner joined a party of the Red Cross that assembled in Chicago and made it’s way west to ship out for Japan and then on to Russia and Roumania, where the party arrived in September. Flexner spent an unknown length of time in Petrograd between Sept-Nov of 1917 during the Bolshevik Revolution. In November of 1918, he traveled to Britain as an envoy of the Zionist Organization of America along with several others,  and continued to Versailles as a signer of the treaties for the ZOA. 

In 1921, B.F. was one of the original 108 founding members members of the CFR. In 1922, he became the founding president of the Palestine Economic Corporation (PEC), which along with the Emergency Committee for Aid of Displaced had its records sealed for at least 25 years after it disbanded (lasting to c.1970) in the crypt of the New York Public Library. The Flexner’s niece, Jacob’s daughter Jenny Maas Flexner, was conveniently an officer of the NYPL.

Bernard Flexner is notable for his relationship and writings about his mentor, Louis Brandeis,  his several philanthropic endowments to law education, and his work with Felix Frankfurter and Roger Baldwin in founding the ACLU. Baldwin and Flexner co-produced the textbook  treatise on “Juvenile Courts and Probation” which was the first codified policing of US children. He never married.


 Abraham Flexner (b. Nov13,1866 – d.Sept.21, 1959)

In 1886, Abraham Flexner earned a two-year degree from Johns Hopkins University. He founded a private boys secondary school in his hometown of Louisville. In 1905, attempting graduate study at Harvard, A.F. left in mid-year and carried letters of recommendation from his brother Simon overseas to the Universities of  Berlin and Heidelberg where he remained roughly one year, recorded as receiving a degree from UBerlin. In 1908, the president of the Carnegie Foundation, Henry Pritchett, hired Abraham on the suggestion of Simon. A.F. joined the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and soon undertook a traveling survey of medical education that was published in 1910 as Carnegie Bulletin #4;  commonly known as the “Flexner Report”.

The Flexner Report was a critical review of medical colleges that was used to force reform and close-down many proprietary schools that did not adhere to the “German Model” of standards. It’s estimated that near 1000 schools were reduced to 160 in the decade following the report. Many of the urban proprietary schools were absorbed into larger universities. Flexner was said to have had a representative of the AMA assisting in some of the surveillance. In 1912, A.F. became the Director of Carnegie’s General Education Board, and he also directed Rockefeller’s General Education Board between the years of 1912 and 1925 which made him the most influential educator in the US. A.F. personally negotiated large grants from the Foundations’ trusts.

In 1914, Abraham published the results of another field trip abroad as a book entitled “Prostitution in Europe”, an effort to ostenisibly study medical issues which were a great concern of the Army in preparedness to enter WWI. The majority of Flexner’s time, however, appears to be given over to public school reform which was planned in the same model as his 1910 report.

Abraham Flexner married (playwright) Anne Laziere Crawford and the couple had two daughters, Jean and Eleanor. Jean Atherton (Flexner) Lewinson donated papers of her parents’ to the Library of Congress after both their deaths in 1959.


Iconoclast: Abraham Flexner and a Life in Learning
By Thomas Bonner ’47, ’49 (Mas)
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002

In the first full biography of the noted educator, Bonner, president emeritus of Wayne State University, examines the life and career of one of America’s most influential educational reformers. Best known as the founder of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, Flexner was instrumental in spurring changes in medical education in the United States, including Rochester, where he played an important role in the launching of the School of Medicine and Dentistry.http://books.google.com/books?id=T5BKmxe7M68C&dq=flexner+%2B+iconoclast&printsec=frontcover&source=bl&ots=eyBEZuDn40&sig=kr4yili5kT1hHBcM39CHh0N8OSs&hl=en#v=onepage&q=&f=false


Details of Abraham Flexner’s personal and professional life are chronicled in Bonner’s recent 2002 biography, noting that he co-founded the University of Rochester’s School of Medicine and Dentistry where covert medical experimentation for the Manhattan Project took place, including the Newburgh NY “Program F” which was the largest secret water fluoridation project before the general use of fluoride in public supplies. In 1930, A.F. founded Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Study with funding from the brother and sister Bambergers, Louis and Julia (Fuld), and personally recruited Albert Einstein, John von Neumann, Eugene Wigner and other key scientists between 1930 and 1933. Prior to founding the IAS, A.F. used his influence with government officials and Rockefeller funding to selectively support known eugenists in Nazi era Germany –some who remained through the war, like Emil Aberhalden, or emigrated to the US and elsewhere. Einstein’s close friend and colleague, Max Born, who went to the University of Edinburgh for the war, was directly funded at A.F.’s behest. Born was known to have trained the famed “Atomic Spy” Klaus Fuchs who lived and worked on the bomb project at Los Alamos, N.M. Flexner was active IAS Director from it’s founding in 1930 to 1939 and an overseeing director for the next 20 years until his death, 9-21-1959 at Falls Church, Virginia. 


Ellis Island records, personal documents, and biographies of the Flexners indicate that they all three travelled extensively, each making many ocean voyages per year, every year until quite late in their lives. The younger generation of Flexners nestled into the professional grooves marked by their parents and carried on in the fields of education, law, politics and  medicine.


Jacob Flexner had 5 children:

    Jennie Maas Flexner – New York Public Library

     Hortense Flexner – writer and poet

     Caroline – aide to NY Governor, staff of United Nations ‘Relief and Rehabilitation’

     Alice – staff of the New York Welfare Office

     Morris Flexner – physician in Louisville, KY


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