Dr. Theodore Rosen, A30, M33

By Kristin Livingston

There is a home in Connecticut that is a haven of comfort and creativity, the walls a patchwork of family-made artistry and pieces collected from around the world, the library stocked floor to ceiling by insatiable curiosity and prolificacy, and the pervasive quiet punctuated only by the clock’s hourly chime. It has also been the base of a self-described walking doctor for the last 60 years—60 years that barely scratch the surface of 103-year-old Dr. Theodore Rosen, A30, M33.

When he attempted to join the college track in school, Dr. Theodore Rosen's, A30, M33, eighth-grade homeroom and math teacher told him, "I wouldn't call you for my dead cat." But in his more than 70 years in medicine, anti-Semitism never got the good doctor down. Photo: Alonso Nichols

A Century of Medicine

Born behind the curtain that separated his father’s variety store from their living quarters in Whitechapel, London, and raised in Brockton, Mass., behind his father’s grocery store, Rosen has witnessed more than a century’s worth of progress, most notably for him in medicine, which despite the struggles, he says “has been good to me.”

One of his earliest memories is that of his parents suffering from the Spanish Flu in 1918 and given treatment that he later realized was a simple placebo. Fortunately, both survived the outbreak that stole more than 600,000 American lives within a year—five times the amount of American combat casualties in all of World War I. He also remembers having his tonsils removed while lying on the family kitchen table, not a whiff of anesthesia to soothe him.

While Rosen eventually specialized in ear, nose, and throat medicine, for the beginning of his career he took whatever was available. Upon graduation from Tufts Medical School, he bought a general practice in Milwaukee and headed west. After a few difficult years of debt and lack of patients, he entered the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) with a friend where he was immediately called to active duty that was not so active.

“Life at the CCC camps was a bore,” he writes in his latest book, Doctor without a Watch. “There was practically no medical activity, only an occasional bruise. Inspecting the kitchen for insects, and helping spray the metal tables with hot water was the main part of my daily routine.”

How quickly that would change. In 1938, Rosen was given a position with the Indian Health Service on a Native American reservation in Mayetta, Kansas, and the memories of poverty and despair still stick with him. Conditions were miserably unsanitary, Rosen says. “After delivering a baby, I looked up to see about a thousand black flies hanging from the ceiling.”

Cleanliness and routine would come in time as he worked at veterans hospitals around the Midwest before joining the Navy. When examining “recruits, naked and holding their official papers” while standing in line, Rosen often had to remove wax from their ears. The procedure was done with a small instrument with a hook on the end that was inserted into the ear to pull out the wax. As this often caused bleeding and fainting, the Navy was prepared with “several strong sailors” who would carry the unconscious to a cot. Ear drops are the normal treatment, but with thousands of recruits waiting naked in line, the war pressing on their minds, Rosen writes “there was no time.”

Eventually, Rosen made time for his patients when he finally opened his own practice in Manchester, Conn., in 1946. Leaving his watch on his nightstand, he had patients come to his house or he walked to their homes for the care and attention he had always wanted to give, valuing quality over quantity.

Even in his operating room, Rosen never scrubbed up while the patient went under—he waited with the patient until the anesthesia took effect. He also never allowed prefilled bottles of liquid medication to be used. Every vial had to be filled from the original source under his watch to remove any mislabeling.

“Trust,” he writes, “is an essential ingredient in medicine....I fear that trust, and the time needed to build trust between a doctor and patient, is being pushed to the back row in today’s medicine.” The trust Rosen instilled in his patients would sustain his practice—that and his open mind for strange and innovative treatments.

Rosen once helped perform a rhinoplasty on a priest with hypnosis as the only anesthesia—the doctor “sawing and chiseling and all, without a single complaint from the patient.” He also witnessed an inner ear operation to alleviate deafness—a procedure that was initially perceived as “sheer quackery,” but is now standard practice.

Dr. Rosen at his home in Manchester, Connecticut. Photo: Alonso Nichols

The Rosen Bunch

“Will you just marry me already, Ted?” Gladys Basse asked Ted Rosen as she perched on the steering wheel of his car. They’d only been on two dates, but after hours on the telephone they both knew that this was it—this was love in its most honest and direct form.

It was 1958. Gladys was a widow with three children. Ted was a divorcee with a child of his own. To celebrate their engagement, the two headed to a romantic spot in New York City that Ted had picked out—“where the waiters wore bowties and had cloth napkins draped over their arms”—only to realize it had closed. They split a sandwich, instead. Later, they got married, joined their families, had another child together, and
never looked back.

Mein Kleiner Doktor

“So you want to be a doctor. I wouldn’t call you for my dead cat.”

That was Ms. Hussey, Rosen’s eighth-grade homeroom and math teacher, who didn’t believe that Jews should join students on the “college course.” But a meeting between the principal, Rosen’s father, and Hussey, would put Rosen on the track to higher education.

When higher education did come calling, Rosen had his ear to the floor for who would and would not accept him. His mother had called him “mein kleiner doktor” or “my little doctor” since he was little—medical school was a given. Rosen writes
of the “grocery store kibitzers” chatting with his mother. “I heard story after story of Harvard being anti-Semitic and having a quota for admitting Jews… Our Jewish neighborhood put a premium on education and we had many outstanding students, but only two had gone to Harvard.” Rosen didn’t apply to Harvard—or Yale which had the same quota, even if he did think he would have met both of their standards. Instead he applied and was accepted to Tufts—twice.

When applying for positions post-medical school, Rosen hit a few more brick walls, including self-doubt. Billings Memorial Hospital in Chicago hadn’t hired a Jewish resident for more than 15 years, because the last had created “problems in the eye clinic,” a fact that Rosen thought he could take to the bank. But surprisingly he was given the position just four days after joining the CCC.

“There I was, sitting in an army barracks a few miles away from Billings Memorial, several hundred dollars in debt and that telegram in my hand. I was stuck for three years of active duty and I knew I could do nothing about it…but in retrospect, I feel very fortunate that things turned out the way they did.”

Later as he toured cities along the Connecticut River for what would become his permanent practice, Rosen was bluntly told that even if he did open his own office, he would never be appointed to a staff position at the local hospital or be allowed to admit his patients there. Then he headed east to Manchester, an unassuming area until he met the people and realized “this was going to be my town.”

After more than 60 years in “his town;” three books; five children; 11 grandchildren; countless painting, stories, and drawings; a short stint as a musician with a local band; and one love of his life; Rosen writes that he is grateful to have had the complete package and lucky to tell the tale.

We are sad to report that on February 1, 2012, Dr. Rosen passed away of natural causes at his home in Connecticut. He was surrounded by friends and family. "He lived a beautiful life," said his wife Gladys, "and I was very lucky to be a part of it."

Kristin Livingston, A05, can be reached at kristin.livingston@tufts.edu.

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