The First Word in Becoming a Leader: Yes

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‘Each time I have gone to a mission, I have come back thinking yes, it was worthwhile’

Carola Blitzman Eisenberg was always unconventional. She was born in Argentina to parents who were Jews and Socialists. By the time she was 11 years old, she stood nearly six feet tall. Other children mocked her because she had crossed-eyes, a condition that was later corrected.

She grew up in Buenos Aires, where girls rarely stayed in school beyond sixth grade. Of the 40 girls in her class, only two went on to junior high.

Dr. Eisenberg first became interested in psychiatry when she and her parents visited a state mental hospital, where only three doctors cared for more than 2,000 patients, many of whom were in chains.

“It was Dante’s inferno,” she recalled.

She displayed immediate leadership, stepping up and asking what she could do to help. A doctor suggested she study to become a psychiatric social worker. She became the first social worker to serve at the institution and was soon running a program to train others.

In coming years, she would go to medical school and move to the United States, completing a fellowship in Child Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital. She enjoyed working in a group psychiatry practice but decided to take on a leadership position, becoming the first woman dean of students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“I think you can help to humanize this place and I need you,” said the president of MIT in offering her the position.

Her passion for human rights took Dr. Eisenberg to El Salvador on a fact-finding trip to investigate the torture of doctors, medical students, social workers and citizens during the civil war of the 1980s. She discovered widespread corruption and horrifying abuses.

“Each time I have gone to a mission, I have come back thinking yes, it was worthwhile and I am very glad I went to El Salvador,” she said. Becoming an effective leader involves a willingness to take risks. It also requires the courage to say “yes.”

Dr. Eisenberg went on to become dean of students at Harvard Medical School. In 1983, she and four other doctors founded Physicians for Human Rights, a leading force in harnessing science and medicine to stop human rights violations.

“With my social conscience and my political activities and with the experience I have had in El Salvador, I said ‘yes,’” she recalled.

The group shared in the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for its campaign to ban landmines. In 2002, she was honored with the Alma Dea Morani Renaissance Woman in Medicine Award, given to a woman who has left a significant mark on history and pivotally advanced the future.

Physicians for Human Rights has 16 organizations in medical schools, instilling values of courage and compassion in the next generation of doctors.

“They come once a year to us, the leaders… to learn more and spur the interest among younger people,” she says. “All of us oldies have to awake the younger people to what otherwise does not get taught in the medical school.”

This story is taken from the oral history of Carola Eisenberg. The full oral history is available here as part of the Foundation’s exhibit at the The Countway Library of Medicine, through our partnership with the The Archives for Women in Medicine

Alicia Lazzaro