Persecuted and expatriated, Alice Rosenstein not only pioneered neuroradiology and neurosurgery, but also championed gay rights in times of antisemitism and global war.
Born in Germany in 1892 to Jewish parents, Alice Rosenstein is considered to be Germany’s first female neurosurgeon, and possibly even the world’s. However, due to her ethnoreligious background, her legacy was almost forgotten.
Rosenstein trained under Otfrid Foerster during the 1920’s in Breslau (currently Wrocław, Poland). At the time, the city had evolved into a world-renowned neurological and neurosurgical center, attracting the likes of Wilder Penfield,
Percival Bailey, and Paul Bucy. Under Foerster’s mentorship, Rosenstein contributed to the development of pneumoencephalography, while also performing her first neurosurgical procedures
As a woman, becoming a surgeon and an academic was a great achievement; women were not allowed to study medicine in Germany until 1909, and they could not pursue a career in academic medicine until 1920.
In 1929, Rosenstein moved to Frankfurt, where she directed the neuroradiology department at the newly created University Hospital’s Mental Clinic. In contrast to the United States, neurosurgery had not yet emerged as a separate
discipline in Germany; furthermore, neurology and psychiatry were amalgamated under the term “mental health”. Thus, she was broadly trained in neurology, psychiatry, neuroradiology and neurosurgery. In Frankfurt, she performed
over 70 neurosurgical procedures.
The clinic’s director, Karl Kleist, was pejoratively called “King of Jews” by his colleagues for employing her and other Jewish doctors in an increasingly antisemitic Weimar Republic. With the rise of Nazism, she was fired in 1933
and migrated to the United States in 1934. Here, Rosenstein changed her name to Alice Rost and continued to work as a psychiatrist and surgeon at the Montefiore Hospital in New York City until 1943. After that, she joined the
US-Army as a psychiatrist and neurologist, where she trained the first female unit. However, her most remarkable achievement here was her defence of lesbian soldiers.
“Homosexuality ... is a certain bent of character and is part of the personality, but not an illness”, she declared, making her one of the most progressive captains to serve at the time. She believed that lesbian soldiers
were not detrimental to the Women’s Army Corps and need not be discharged, thus giving the War Department Circular on homosexuality a more tolerant interpretation.
Of Jewish heritage in times of German Nazism, training in an emerging surgical field, and championing gay tolerance in one of the most homophobic environments, Alice Rosenstein constitutes a role model in integrity and resiliency