Rahel Hirsch was born in Frankfurt am Main as the sixth of eleven children of the Jewish teacher Dr. phil. Mendel Hirsch and his wife Dorothea, née Ballin (1843–1914).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 her father's school and successfully completed studies at the teacher training college in Wiesbaden in 1898. 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). Women were only gradually granted the right to enrol for medical studies in Germany from 1900. Some medical faculties, however, allowed the continuation of studies that had been taken up abroad as well as admission to the state examination. Thus Rahel Hirsch also studied in Leipzig and Strasbourg. She received her German license to practice medicine in 1903, after passing the state examination in Strasbourg and having received her doctorate with a thesis on glycosis, which she wrote under Franz Hofmeister (1850–1922).2
She obtained an unpaid position as an intern at the II Medical Clinic of the Berlin Charité under Friedrich Kraus (1858–1936). She was the second female physician to be employed at the Charité after Helenefriederike Stelzner (1861–1937). She also undertook scientific research here.
Hirsch demonstrated in 1906 that "starch granules," large corpuscular particles composed of several simple sugars, can enter the blood through the mucosa of the small intestine and be excreted in the urine.3According to the doctrine of the time, only significantly smaller particles could be absorbed by the intestine. At a lecture on this process, later referred to as the "Hirsch effect," she earned the ridicule and scorn of the Society of Physicians of the Charité in November 1907.4 Although her experiments were confirmed by the physiologist Fritz Verzár (1886–1979) in 1911, they did not receive recognition and lasting appreciation until 1957, when Theodor Brugsch's assistant Gerhard Volkheimer (1921–2021) repeated the experiments and confirmed them.5
In addition to the absorption studies described above, Hirsch conducted research in other areas of (patho)physiology, including fever and temperature regulation, endocrine secretion, and renal physiology. She published a total of about 35 scientific papers. She also wrote a "Therapeutisches Taschenbuch der Elektro- und Strahlentherapie" (1920) as well as making contributions to the handbooks on biochemistry and "Spezielle Pathologie und Therapie innerer Krankheiten" published by Carl Oppenheimer and Kraus and Brugsch, respectively.6
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 (the right for women to habilitate was only introduced in 1920), she was the third woman in Germany and the first woman in Prussia to be awarded the title of professor in 1913. She was admitted to the DGIM the same year as the first 7(and until 1921 the only) woman, and also to the renowned Berlin Medical Society.
She left the Charité and settled as a physician for internal diseases in 1919. She had already been practicing at Schöneberger Ufer 31 while still working at the hospital. She had her practice at Königin-Augusta-Strasse 22 from 1919, 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.
Commitment to Public Health
Hirsch was not a member of the Association of German Women Physicians or any other professional or health policy associations. Nevertheless, she was very committed to women's interests. She advocated gender-specific health advice, pleaded for overcoming outdated role models, and spoke out in favor of comfortable clothing and exercise, especially after pregnancy. She published her book "Körperkultur der Frau" on this topic in 1913.8
Upheaval in 1933 – Poverty and Disease in London
Following the National Socialist rise to power, Hirsch's health insurance license was revoked in April 1933 and she was deprived of the right to treat privately insured patients in 1934.9 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, as this would have required renewed studies and exams and she was already 68 years old at this point. She first worked as a laboratory assistant and then as a translator. She faced financial hardship and had to rely on the support of charitable organizations. Being in exile also weighed heavily on her emotionally. She became mentally ill and was repeatedly hospitalized. She died in a "mental house" at the age of 83.
Rahel Hirsch was never married and had no children. At least two of her siblings perished in German concentration camps.
There is a bronze sculpture of Hirsch on the grounds of Berlin's Charité hospital, which was unveiled in 1995. Furthermore, the Charité has been awarding the Rahel Hirsch Fellowship – a postdoctoral fellowship for young female scientists – since 1999.10A memorial plaque commemorates Hirsch at Kurfürstendamm 220, and a street in Berlin-Moabit is named after her. A Berlin senior high school center was named for her in 2015.11