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Dr. Carola Eisenberg, human rights group founder and groundbreaking woman dean at MIT and Harvard, dies at 103

Dr. Carola Eisenberg
Dr. Carola EisenbergMartin Berinstein

Lying awake at night in an El Salvador hotel room — her sleep disturbed by what she described as “the zzzzzz” of machine gun fire, the sounds of “people being killed” — Dr. Carola Eisenberg was reminded of why she helped found a human rights organization and risked her life to document abuses.

“Before I went,” she later recalled of that 1989 trip, “I would ask myself, you know, ‘Why should I go? Will one person make a difference?’ And the difference that one makes is that people in the jails and other places we visited would say, ‘We are not forgotten.’ And that was the message that I got. And I had to keep going back, because they had to hear that other people cared about them.”

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Dr. Eisenberg, who also had been the first female dean of student affairs at MIT and Harvard Medical School, died Thursday in her home in The Commons in Lincoln. She was 103 and her health had been failing over the past year.

With five other doctors, she cofounded Physicians for Human Rights in 1986.

The organization went on to have an international impact documenting torture and abuses, and advocating on behalf of those seeking asylum, a particular focus for Dr. Eisenberg, who kept working on asylum evaluations into her 90s.

Equally important were her groundbreaking roles at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard Medical School. In 1989, she published an article in the New England Journal of Medicine titled “Medicine is No Longer a Man’s Profession.”

“Full justice for women requires that they have an equal opportunity for professional success after acceptance to medical school,” she wrote, and added: “The playing field is hardly level if only superwomen, rather than most women, can satisfy the needs of their families and meet their professional goals.”

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Whether as a woman in a male-dominated field or a human-rights worker documenting abuses, “she had this remarkable ability to see human suffering and improve the human condition,” said her longtime friend Donna McKay, the first woman to serve as executive director of Physicians for Human Rights.

Even in Dr. Eisenberg’s final years living in The Commons retirement community, she “would see someone sitting alone or eating alone and would ask if she could join them,” said McKay, who visited regularly before the pandemic. “She would make friends and introduce them to other people.”

“She was really functioning more or less as a group therapist for her circle of friends at The Commons,” said her son Dr. Laurence Guttmacher, a professor of clinical psychiatry and clinical medical humanities at the University of Rochester School of Medicine, where he formerly was associate dean.

Dr. Eisenberg had “a deep and innate, genuine interest in the lives of every single person she encountered,” said her other son, Dr. Alan Guttmacher, who retired after serving as director of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the National Institutes of Health.

When the family held a 100th birthday party for Dr. Eisenberg, she had to trim her guest list from 164 to 100 in deference to the restaurant’s capacity.

Alan Guttmacher told those gathered that “86 of you are convinced that you are among you are among Carola’s three or four best friends. What’s really impressive is that the 86 of you are right. It’s true — 86 of you are among her three or four best friends.”

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Carolina Blitzman was born in Buenos Aires on Sep. 15, 1917, and grew up in Argentina, a daughter of Bernardo Blitzman and Teodora Kahn.

Dr. Eisenberg, who changed her name to Carola when she emigrated to the United States, was the middle of three daughters and grew up across the street from a slaughterhouse, where her father was a junior executive.

Her mother was from Russia, as was her father’s family. Jewish emigres in a heavily Catholic country, the Blitzmans were intellectuals and socialists.

“They really believed in the life of the mind, in political discussion, in bettering humanity,” said Alan Guttmacher, who lives in Thetford, Vt.

Dr. Eisenberg once recalled accompanying her father to a psychiatric hospital and being shocked by the sight of patients chained to their beds. When her parents took her to a lecture by the head of the psychiatry department at the University of Buenos Aires, she found her life’s calling.

Cautioned that she might faint when the time arrived to see a cadaver during medical school, she found that her male student partner fainted instead. “They lifted the sheet, and I heard a ‘thud’ behind me,” she told The Crimson, Harvard’s student newspaper, in 1997.

“And she ended up ministering to him,” said her son Laurence Guttmacher, who lives in Rochester, N.Y. “He was her first patient.”

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Upon graduating from the University of Buenos Aires with a medical degree, visa difficulties prevented her from studying in England with Anna Freud, who had accepted her as a student, so Dr. Eisenberg went instead to Johns Hopkins University and joined its child psychiatry program.

She married Dr. Manfred Guttmacher, a forensic psychiatrist who testified at the trial that led to the conviction of Jack Ruby in the shooting death of Lee Harvey Oswald, President John F. Kennedy’s assassin.

Guttmacher died in 1966 and she subsequently married Dr. Leon Eisenberg, whose work brought them to Cambridge, where he spearheaded diversity and affirmative action efforts at Harvard Medical School. He died in 2009.

Initially after moving north, Dr. Eisenberg was a consultant in psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, and she became MIT’s first female dean of student affairs in 1972.

“I was the first to do all kinds of things,” she told The Crimson of her “exhilarating years” at MIT.

“I had been feeling since I came [to the United States] that I needed to help a larger group of people, to broaden my panorama of student life, and this gave me a chance to create a community more friendly to minorities and women,” Dr. Eisenberg said.

As a dean at Harvard Medical School, she was known for inviting the entire first- and second-year classes to dinners at her home, 25 at a time.

Dr. Eisenberg also formerly directed the school’s international programs for students and helped create and teach such classes as “How Does Medicine Apply to Human Rights Issues?” and “Race, Health, and Human Rights in the United States.”

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“She was a great generous, open, friendly, caring human being. She was incredible,” said her longtime friend Dr. Carol Nadelson, a psychiatrist on the faculty of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School who was the first woman to serve as president of the American Psychiatric Association. “She conquered a lot of adversity in her life and was always able to stand up to it with a smile.”

In addition to her two sons, Dr. Eisenberg leaves four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Her family has not yet decided on plans for a celebration of her life and career.

Among the many honors Dr. Eisenberg received was the Alma Dea Morani Renaissance Woman Award from the Foundation for the History of Women in Medicine for her leadership in offering support to female students and residents.

Accolades from medical organizations arrived decades after her time as a student at a university where women medical students were largely ignored, because professors expected them to drop out and marry.

“I was full of uncertainties. But I made it,” she once said of the challenges she had faced as a woman in medicine. “Half of the time I don’t know how I did do it, except that I like to persevere.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.