In the Vinyl discussion, we are talking about American culture. ck is bemoaning the fact that our current generation doesn’t have people of the same “quality” as Jews from the middle and early part of the 20th Century. It so happens that as I was perusing the NY Times, two names jumped out at me from the obituaries. One was a doctor and inventor, the other was a comedian who wrote, among others, for the Marx Brothers and Milton Berle (who were also Jewish).

The doctor was Adrian Kantrowitz:

On Dec. 6, 1967, when he removed the heart of a brain-dead baby and implanted it into the chest of a baby with a fatal heart defect, Dr. Kantrowitz became the first doctor to perform a human heart transplant in the United States. The patient lived for only six and a half hours, but the operation was a milestone on the way to the routine transplants of today.

Along with Dr. Michael E. DeBakey of Texas and a few others, Dr. Kantrowitz helped open the new era in care for seemingly terminally ill heart patients, using both surgery and artificial devices. His work at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn and Sinai Hospital in Detroit had a lasting impact, starting with his first headlines in 1959, when he gave a healthy dog a booster heart muscle.

Over six decades of surgical practice, he designed and used more than 20 medical devices that aided circulation and other vital functions.

Although his 1967 transplant was the first in the United States, it was not the first in the world, following by three days Dr. Christiaan Barnard’s in Cape Town. But Dr. Kantrowitz had been methodical in laying the groundwork for the procedure. He practiced hundreds of heart transplants in puppies over the previous four years, and had planned a human operation the previous year, but was prevented at the last minute because the donor infant had not been declared brain-dead.

Kantrowitz moved himself and an entire team of surgeons to Michigan some years later and would spend the rest of his life there growing his medical device company which specialized in equipment for cardiac treatment.

Irving Brecher was a comedy writer.

Always a tester of taboos, in the same film he had Groucho tease the guardians of Hollywood’s decency. In one scene, a mischievous vixen played by Eve Arden hides a billfold in her cleavage, and Groucho, wanting it back, says to the camera: “There must be some way of getting that money without getting in trouble with the Hays Office.” Groucho would later say it was the biggest laugh in the film. He and S. J. Perelman, asked to name the world’s quickest wits, listed Mr. Brecher along with George S. Kaufman and Oscar Levant.

Mr. Brecher received sole screenplay credit for two Marx Brothers films, a feat in itself. (The second was “Go West,” released in 1940.) He was nominated for an Academy Award for his screenplay for “Meet Me in St. Louis,” the Vincente Minnelli family musical set in the early 1900s, which became one of Judy Garland’s biggest hits, but only after Mr. Brecher talked her into making it by reading her the script.

He produced and wrote TV series, movies and wrote for comedians.

At 19, after a brief stint covering high school sports for a local newspaper, he took a job as an usher and ticket taker at a Manhattan movie theater, where he learned from a critic for Variety that he could earn money writing jokes for comedians. Knowing of Milton Berle’s reputation as joke-pilferer, he placed an ad in Variety, reading, in part: “Positively Berle-proof gags. So bad not even Milton will steal them.”

Berle himself hired him.

Medicine and popular culture; medical devices and cinema. These are two areas where Jewish contribution has been immense, especially in North America in the past century. I’m not sure I share ck’s pessimism that the generation of Brecher and Kantrowitz was superior to our current doctors, comedians, inventors, etc., but we can be certain that particularly after WWII, the contribution of Jews to American society was broad and meaningful.

About the author