Who was Helena Kagan?
This is a question that at one time every Jerusalemite could answer, because she was the pediatrician in the city.
Helena Kagan was born in Tashkent in 1889. A talented pianist, she also studied medicine in Switzerland. On qualifying as a pediatrician, she decided to forgo all thoughts of a career as a pianist and, determined to help build the Jewish state in Palestine, sailed for Jaffa in 1913.
Women were not granted licenses to practice medicine in the Ottoman Empire, but after playing a decisive role in containing a cholera epidemic, the young Dr. Helena Kagan was granted an honorary license – the only woman doctor in the Ottoman Empire! She opened a small clinic in her home and became the first pediatrician in the country.
Dr. Kagan headed the pediatrics department at Bikkur Holim Hospital, where she also established a school of nursing. She initiated the well-baby clinics, did research in rheumatic fever, pioneered welfare centers for Jews and Arabs, and oversaw the WIZO projects for babies and children. Her emphasis on pediatric preventive medicine carried over to her work in preventing children from becoming school dropouts – hence the learning center.
Dr. Kagan was elected to the legislative council of the Jewish community in Palestine, and was a member of the Board of Governors of the Hebrew University. In 1958, she became the first woman to receive the Freedom of the City of Jerusalem, and in 1975 she was awarded The Israel Prize.
At the age of 78, during the Six-Day War, she tended the wounded in a hospital emergency room for 36 hours straight, and in her 80s she was still taking the bus to the Hadassah medical library weekly to keep abreast of the latest developments, so that she could provide the best care for the patients she saw in her daily clinic.
Helena Kagan died at the age of 89 – a legend in her own time.