Florence Brandeis was born in Louisville as a member of a Jewish family which had emigrated to Louisville from Bohemia, then a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and now part of the Czech Republic, in the 1850s. Many members of the Brandeis family had supported the Revolutions of 1848, which had aimed to liberalize the Austrian state, and after the failure of these revolutions they fled the political persecution that governments unleashed against political dissidents. The family found refuge in the New World. Florence’s father Samuel was a physician who provided medical care to the Union Army during the Civil War. Her mother, the former Caroline Wehle, also belonged to a prominent Louisville Jewish family. The couple had five children, of whom Florence was the fourth. She was a first cousin of Louis Brandeis, who gained fame as a lawyer and Supreme Court Justice.
Following the family tradition, Florence Brandeis studied medicine at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, at that time one of very few medical schools that admitted women. When she returned to Louisville in 1887, she was one of the first woman physicians to practice in the city. Brandeis specialized in pediatrics and gynecology, which were among the few fields in which women physicians could succeed during this era.
Throughout her career, Florence Brandeis built the city’s public-health services and advanced women in medical careers. In 1887, she helped to open the city’s first nursing school, the Training School for Nurses, and urged women who were in need of a livelihood to enter this new profession. In an era when medical science was transformed by the germ theory of disease, she worked to improve sanitary standards in schools and kindergartens, serving for many years as Sanitary Inspector and Medical Inspector of the city’s public schools. She worked for children’s health as a volunteer with the Recreation League, which sponsored playgrounds in the city’s parks, and with the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). In 1921, she supported the YWCA’s sports programs by debunking popular beliefs that exercise harmed girls’ health. She declared that “more persons suffer from lack of exercise than from too much exercise.”
Florence Brandeis was a long-time member of both the Woman’s Club of Louisville and of the Woman Suffrage Association of Louisville (LWSA). Like so many others of her generation, she was probably confident that woman suffrage would improve the status of women in many areas, including education, the professions, and health care.
Other members of the Brandeis family also worked for the rights and well-being of women. Florence’s brother Albert Brandeis (1858-1913), also a member of LWSA, was a lawyer who worked with his fellow suffragists on such social reforms as the drafting and passage of child labor laws and the establishment of a juvenile court.
Florence and Albert Brandeis are buried in the Temple Cemetery in Louisville.
Prepared by Ann Taylor Allen, Professor Emerita, University of Louisville
Caroline Wehle Brandeis
Louisville Courier-Journal: March 27, 1887; Nov. 17, 1898; 2 May 1901; April 2, 1904; Oct. 24, 1909; Jan. 33, 1913; Nov. 7, 1913; Dec. 15, 1917; June 21, 1921.
Regina Morantz-Sanchez, Sympathy and Science: Women Physicians in American Medicine. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.