Rahel Hirsch was born in Frankfurt am Main, the sixth of eleven children of the teacher Mendel Hirsch and his wife Doris.1 Her father taught at the Realschule and Höhere Töchterschule of the Jewish Community in Frankfurt. Her grandfather, Reform Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, was one of the founders of neo-orthodoxy, which balanced Orthodox life with participation in the non-Jewish environment.One of her nephews was the Frankfurt internist Samson Hirsch (1890-1960), who also had to emigrate.
Teacher and Physician
Rahel Hirsch attended the school in which her father was teaching and successfully completed studies at the teacher training college in Wiesbaden. She taught at her old school for a short time, but took up medical studies in Zurich in 1898 and earned the Swiss Maturiat (1899). This would not have been possible for her as a woman in Germany, though some medical faculties allowed her to continue her studies. Thus Rahel Hirsch also studied in Leipzig and Strasbourg. She received her license to practice medicine in 1903, after passing the state examination in Strasbourg and receiving her doctorate with a thesis on glycosis.
She obtained an assistant position at the II Medical Clinic of the Berlin Charité under Friedrich Kraus, where she was also active scientifically. She demonstrated that large-body particles could penetrate the mucosa of the small intestine and be excreted in the urine in 1906. 2 At a lecture on this process, later referred to as the "Hirsch effect," she earned ridicule and scorn before the "Gesellschaft der Ärzte der Charité" (Society of Physicians of the Charité) in November 1907.3 It was not until 1957 that her experiments were repeated and confirmed by Gerhard Volkheimer.4
First Female Professor in Prussia
Hirsch was entrusted with leading the polyclinic of the II Medical Clinic of the Charité in 1908. Although she was unable to habilitate as a woman, she was the third woman in Germany and the first woman in Prussia to be awarded the title of professor in 1913. She left the Charité and settled as a physician for internal diseases in 1919. She first practiced at Schöneberger Ufer 31, then at Königin-Augusta-Strasse 22, and at Kurfürstendamm 220 from 1928. She made increasing use of the diagnostic and therapeutic possibilities of radiation therapy in her last practice, which was equipped with modern X-ray machines.
Poverty and Disease in London
The National Socialists withdrew her health insurance license to practice medicine in April 1933, and in 1934, she was also deprived of the right to treat privately insured patients.5 Her license to practice medicine was revoked in September 1938.
Rahel Hirsch decided to flee Germany and emigrated to London at the beginning of October 1938. She renounced her English license to practice medicine at the age of 68, as this would have required renewed studies and exams. She worked as a laboratory assistant and translator instead. She faced financial hardships and had to rely on the support of charitable organizations. She became mentally ill and was repeatedly hospitalized. She died at the age of 83.
Rahel Hirsch was never married and had no children. In terms of health policy, she was particularly committed to women. She campaigned for gender-specific health advice and advocated overcoming outdated role models. For example, she advocated comfortable clothing and physical activity, especially after pregnancy. She published her book "Körperkultur der Frau" on this topic.6 In addition, numerous other scientific works were published, especially on renal physiology.
There is a bronze sculpture of her on the grounds of Berlin's Charité hospital, which was unveiled in 1995. A memorial plaque commemorates her at Kurfürstendamm 220, and a street in Berlin-Moabit is named after her. A Berlin senior high school center has been named for her since 2015.7