Radiologist and educator Dr. Alice Ettinger came to the U.S. in 1932, to demonstrate Dr. Hans Heinrich Berg's spot-film device and change the field of gastrointestinal radiology in America. She taught at Tufts University School of Medicine for 53 years, serving as the first chair of the department of radiology.
Born in Berlin in 1899, Alice Ettinger studied medicine at Freiberg's Albert Ludwig University, receiving her degree in 1924. After pursuing advanced training in internal medicine and radiology, she worked for two and a half years with Dr. Berg at Berlin's Frederick Wilhelm University Hospital. European radiological technology was more advanced than that in America, and Dr. Berg was becoming internationally known for his revolutionary gastrointestinal X-ray techniques.
In 1932 Dr. Alice Ettinger arrived in the U.S. with a spot-film X-ray device in her luggage and a plan to stay in America for six weeks. She'd come from Berlin, sent to Boston by her professor, radiologist Dr. Hans Heinrich Berg, at the request of Dr. Joseph Pratt of Tufts Medical School and chief of medicine at the Boston Dispensary. Dr. Pratt was interested in Dr. Berg's innovative spot-film device, which allowed radiologists to take a snapshot from the flow of images on a screen to use for closer examination. Dr. Pratt had also asked for a well-trained pupil from Dr. Berg's laboratory to demonstrate the machine. Dr. Alice Ettinger's six-week visit to Boston turned into a career that lasted for more than fifty years. Soon after her arrival in the U.S., Dr. Ettinger introduced modern gastrointestinal radiology to the Boston Dispensary. The demonstration caused a sensation among Boston radiologists eager to learn the latest European practices.
A woman of tremendous energy, Dr. Ettinger went to work in the Boston Dispensary with Dr. Pratt, and in 1939 became the first radiologist-in-chief at both the Boston Dispensary and the New England Medical Center Hospital. She established the first radiology residency program at Tufts School of Medicine in 1945, and in 1959 became professor and the first chair of the Department of Radiology.
Teaching was Dr. Ettinger's great passion. She saw teaching as a privilege, and set exacting standards for herself and her students. "With her, it was never sort of good enough, or probably OK," recalled a former student. "Excellence was the only mode in which she could operate." She was a common sight hurrying down the hall in her white coat, talking to anyone who might be a student or house staff, eager to show off an X-ray image. Another student recalled, "She was like a vat of information with an overflow valve that needed hourly discharge, whoever was there to hear it." Her students rewarded her with thirteen faculty teaching awards.
Dr. Ettinger's contributions to radiology were substantial. She was among the first radiologists in the country to recognize that the dye commonly used to provide contrast material could damage the kidneys, and she was a leader in the emerging field of tomography. "She knew more about interpreting X-ray film than any ten other radiologists compressed into one," claims a colleague who helped her toward the end of her life. "Even the most senior of our radiologists must have told me countless times: "'Let's see what Alice has to say.'"
For all her brilliance as a physician and scientist, Dr. Ettinger never lost her compassion for patients. When she looked at an X-ray, she saw the patient as well as the pathology. At student presentations, she would ask, "Is that Mr. Johnson's chest X-ray?" "Is that Mrs. Smith's upper GI series?" After reviewing the day's radiology requests, she didn't hesitate to challenge a surgeon on a decision to operate, even if the patient was on his way to the OR.
A German-Jewish immigrant herself, she had been responsible for helping many who fled Nazi persecution during the 1930s. She found jobs for refugee doctors, and helped them get settled in the U.S. She ignored national boundaries in medicine, and took numerous trips abroad, eager to learn new things, asking and probing with an interest that won the admiration of colleagues the world over.
In 1965 Dr. Ettinger retired as chair of the radiology department at Tufts, but continued as an active radiologist and teacher. Still full of energy at the age of 71, she took a new position overseeing Tufts radiology teaching program. She finally gave up teaching in 1985at the age of 86. In recognition of her extraordinary accomplishments, the Radiological Society of North American awarded her a gold medal, as did the American College of Radiology.