Abraham Flexner

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Abraham Flexner
Abraham Flexner circa 1895
Born November 13, 1866 (1866-11-13)
Louisville, Kentucky
Died September 21, 1959(1959-09-21) (aged 92)
Falls Church, Virginia
Fields Higher education
Medical education
Institutions Johns Hopkins University
Rockefeller Institute
University of Berlin
Harvard University
Institute for Advanced Study
Alma mater Johns Hopkins University
Known for The Flexner Report

Abraham Flexner (November 13, 1866 – September 21, 1959) was an American educator, best known for his role in the 20th century reform of medical and higher education in America and Canada.[1]

After founding and directing a college-preparatory school in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, Flexner published a critical assessment of the state of the American educational system in 1908 titled: The American College: A Criticism. His work attracted the Carnegie Foundation to commission an in depth evaluation into 155 colleges and universities across the United States and Canada.[2] It was his resultant self-titled Flexner Report, published in 1910, that sparked the reform of medical education in the United States and Canada.[1] Flexner was also a founder of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, which brought together some of the greatest minds in history to collaborate on intellectual discovery and research. The Institute and Flexner facilitated the migration of many Jewish scholars from Europe to the United States throughout the years leading up to and during World War II.[2]

Early life and education[edit]

Flexner was born in Louisville, Kentucky,on November 13, 1866, the sixth of nine children. His parents, Ester and Moritz Flexner, were German Jewish immigrants.[3] A younger brother of the medical researcher Simon Flexner, who was employed by the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research from 1901–1935, Abraham graduated from Johns Hopkins University at age 19. Nineteen years later, he did graduate studies at Harvard University and at the University of Berlin.[4] He did not, however, complete work on an advanced degree at either institution.


Experimental schooling[edit]

After graduating from Johns Hopkins University in two years with a degree in classics, Flexner returned to Louisville to teach classics at the Louisville Male High School. Four years later, Flexner founded a private school in which he would test his growing ideas about education. Flexner opposed the standard model of education that focused on mental discipline and a rigid structure. Moreover, "Mr. Flexner's School" did not give out traditional grades, used no standard curriculum, refused to impose examinations on students, and kept no academic record of students. Instead, it promoted small learning groups, individual development, and a more hands-on approach to education. Graduates of his school were soon accepted at leading colleges, and his teaching style began to attract considerable attention.[2]

Rockefeller Foundation[edit]

Between 1912 to 1925, Flexner served on the Rockefeller Foundation's General Education Board, and after 1917 was its secretary. With the help of the Board, he founded another experimental school, the Lincoln School, which opened in 1917, in cooperation with the faculty at Teachers College of Columbia University.

Institute for Advanced Study[edit]

With Louis Bamberger, Flexner founded the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, heading it from 1930 to 1939 and overseeing a faculty that included Kurt Gödel and John von Neumann. During his time there, Flexner helped bring over many European scientists who would likely have suffered persecution by the rising Nazi government, including Albert Einstein, who arrive at the Institute in 1933 under Flexner's directorship.[5]

Notable publications[edit]

The American College[edit]

In 1908, Flexner published his first book, The American College. Strongly critical of many aspects of American higher education, it denounced, in particular, the university lecture as a method of instruction. According to Flexner, lectures enabled colleges to "handle cheaply by wholesale a large body of students that would be otherwise unmanageable and thus give the lecturer time for research." In addition, Flexner was concerned about the chaotic condition of the undergraduate curriculum and the influence of the research culture of the university. Neither contributed to the mission of the college to address the whole person. He feared that "research had largely appropriated the resources of the college, substituting the methods and interest of highly specialized investigation for the larger objects of college teaching."[6] His book attracted the attention of Henry Pritchett, president of the Carnegie Foundation, who was looking for someone to lead a series of studies of professional education. Although Flexner had never set foot inside a medical school, he was Pritchett's first choice to lead a study of American medical education, and soon joined the research staff at the Carnegie Foundation in 1908.

Flexner Report[edit]

Two years later, he published the Flexner Report, which examined the state of American medical education and led to far-reaching reform in the training of doctors. The Flexner report led to the closure of most rural medical schools and all but two African-American medical colleges in the United States.[7] Ironically, one of the schools, Louisville National Medical College, was located in his home town. In response to the report, some schools fired senior faculty members in a process of reform and renewal.[8]

Flexner soon conducted a related study of medical education in Europe.[9] According to Bonner (2002), Flexner's work came to be "nearly as well known in Europe as in America."[10] With funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, Flexner "...exerted a decisive influence on the course of medical training and left an enduring mark on some of the nation's most renowned schools of medicine."[10] He worried that "the imposition of rigid standards by accrediting groups was making the medical curriculum a monstrosity," with medical students moving through it with "little time to stop, read, work or think." Bonner (2002) calls Flexner "the severest critic and the best friend American medicine ever had."[10]

Universities: American, English, German[edit]

In his 1930 Universities: American, English, German, Flexner returned to his earlier interest in the direction and purpose of the American university, attacking distractions from serious learning, such as intercollegiate athletics, student government, and other student activities. "Intellectual inquiry, not job training, [is] the purpose of the university."


Flexner died in Falls Church, Virginia in 1959 at 92 years of age. He was buried in Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky.[11]


Flexner's wife, Anne Crawford Flexner, was a successful playwright and children's author. Their daughter, Eleanor Flexner, was an independent scholar and pioneer of women's studies.

In addition to contributions by his brother Simon, their nephew, Louis Barkhouse Flexner (January 7, 1902 - March 29, 1996), was founding director of the Mahoney Institute of Neurological Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania and a former editor of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Billionaire Warren Buffett said in a 2012 interview with The Economist that a book he read by Flexner had "huge impact" on him as a teenager.[12]


  • Abraham Flexner Way in downtown Louisville's hospital district was named by the Louisville Board of Aldermen in November 1978 to honor Flexner.
  • The Association of American Medical Colleges created the Abraham Flexner Award for Distinguished Service to Medical Education to annually recognize individuals who have made a notable contribution to American medical education.[13]
  • The University of Kentucky College of Medicine created the Abraham Flexner Master Educator Awards to recognize achievement in six categories:
    • Educational Leadership and Administration
    • Outstanding Teaching Contribution or Mentorship
    • Educational Innovation and Curriculum Development
    • Educational Evaluation and Research
    • Faculty Development in Education[14] 


Further reading[edit]

  • Bonner, Thomas Neville, 2002. Iconoclast: Abraham Flexner and a Life in Learning. Johns Hopkins Univ. Press. ISBN 0-8018-7124-7.
  • Bonner TN. The historical reputation of Abraham Flexner (1866-1959). Acad Med 1989;64(1):17-8.
  • Bonner TN. Abraham Flexner and the historians. J Hist Med Allied Sci 1990; 45(1):3-10.
  • Bonner TN. Searching for Abraham Flexner. Acad Med 1998;73(2):160-6.
  • Dubovsky H. The Jewish contribution to medicine. Part III. The 19th and 20th centuries in the USA. SAfr Med J 1989;76(3):119-20.
  • King LS. Medicine in the USA: historical vignettes. XX. The Flexner report of 1910. JAMA 1984;251(8):1079-86.
  • King DJ. The psychological training of Abraham Flexner, the reformer of medical education. J Psychol 1978;100:131-7.
  • Nevins, Michael, 2010. Abraham Flexner: A Flawed American Icon. iUniverse. ISBN 978-1-4502-6086-2.
  • Starr, Paul, 1982. The Social Transformation of American Medicine. Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-07935-0.
  • Wheatley, S. C., 1989. The Politics of Philanthropy: Abraham Flexner and Medical Education. University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 0-299-11754-5.


  1. ^ a b Brown, E. Richard. Rockefeller Medicine Men: Medicine and Capitalism in America. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press Ltd. pp. 135–159. ISBN 0520042697. 
  2. ^ a b c Bonner, Thomas Neville (February 1998). "Searching for Abraham Flexner". Academic Medicine 73 (2): 161. 
  3. ^ Abraham Flexner: An Autobiography, New York: SImon and Schuster, 1960, p 2-4.
  4. ^ Abraham Flexner - A Register of His Papers in the Library of Congress
  5. ^ "Abraham Flexner". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. 
  6. ^ Abraham Flexner, 'The American College, New York: The Century Company, 1908, pp. 215-216,
  7. ^ Beck AH (2004). "The Flexner Report and the standardization of American medical education". JAMA 291 (17): 2139–2140. doi:10.1001/jama.291.17.2139. PMID 15126445. 
  8. ^ World J Surg. 2012 Mar;36(3):684-8 https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/handle/1807/32172
  9. ^ "T-Space at The University of Toronto Libraries: Medical education in Europe; a report to the Carnegie foundation for the advancement of teaching (1912)". Tspace.library.utoronto.ca. Retrieved 2012-11-24. 
  10. ^ a b c Bonner 2002
  11. ^ "Abraham Flexner". Institute for Advanced Study. Institute for Advanced Study. 
  12. ^ 05/21/2012 4:34 pm Updated: 05/21/2012 4:46 pm (2012-05-21). "Warren Buffett Talks Philanthropy With 'Giving Pledge' Billionaires". Huffingtonpost.com. Retrieved 2012-11-24. 
  13. ^ "Association of American Medical Colleges". 
  14. ^ "Abraham Flexner Master Educator Awards Categories | Office of Medical Education". meded.med.uky.edu. Retrieved 2015-04-01. 

External links[edit]