“The School Dr. Meister Built: Bronx Science at 75”

“Eastern European Jews showed almost from the beginning of their arrival in this country [in the 1880’s] a passion for education that was unique in American history.”         Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan, Beyond the Melting Pot: The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians and Irish of New York City, first published in 1963

When the northbound No. 4 train emerges from underground after leaving the 149th St. and Grand Concourse Station, the first majestic sight riders have seen since 1923 is the “House That Babe Ruth Built.”  At the northern end of this Jerome Avenue Line is the “School That Dr. Meister Built,” the Bronx High School of Science, though it was housed between 1938 and 1959 in the old annex to DeWitt Clinton HS, which was located three stations closer to Yankee Stadium, the most famous stadium in America. (In June 1938, my 15-year-old mother, Florence Schneiderman, went up on the roof of her six-story apartment building at 840 Gerard Ave., which overlooked the stadium’s playing field, and with binoculars, she watched Joe Louis demolish Max Schmeling in the first-round of their World Heavyweight Championship fight.)

On Saturday night at the Waldorf-Astoria, New York City’s most prestigious hotel (where my parents spent their wedding night in 1947), hundreds of Bronx Science graduates will celebrate our alma mater’s 75th anniversary, while also raising $1 million for enrichment programs for current Scienceites. This diamond anniversary is a perfect time to recall the multifaceted genius of the school’s largely-forgotten founding principal, Dr. Morris Meister, a product of the Jewish Lower East Side at the turn of the 20th century.

In 2005, Berkeley sociologist Jerome Karabel published The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale and Princeton,” which documents the difficulty that Bronx Science male graduates (predominantly Jewish) had in gaining entrance into those three Ivy League universities between the 1940’s and 1960’s.  However, Karabel never mentions Dr. Meister, whose many academic accomplishments rival those of Dr. James Conant, the distinguished scientist who was Harvard’s president between 1933 and 1953.

Similarly, in Dec. 2011, New York Magazine published “A Bronx Science Experiment,” which, sadly, details the school’s incessant turmoil under Valerie Reidy, the principal since 2001. But this long article also never mentions Dr. Meister, who before taking the helm at Bronx Science and superbly guiding it for the next 20 years to the exalted position as the nation’s premier academic high school, was the NYC Board of Education’s supervisor of science education.

The unrivalled excellence of New York public schools in science and math is demonstrated by the astonishing fact that 39 graduates of the city’s high schools won a science or math-based Nobel Prize between 1932 and 2012: 15 in physics, 14 in medicine, 6 in chemistry and 4 in economics. (Another graduate of a city public high school, Henry Kissinger, won the Nobel Peace Prize.)  Thirty-five of these Nobel laureates are Jewish, and eight are graduates of Bronx Science. Ten of these laureates received their undergraduate degree from Columbia, nine from City College and five from Cornell.  Not suprisingly, only six received their undergraduate degree from “exclusionary” Harvard, Yale or Princeton.

When the Bronx High School of Science opened its doors in 1938, Stuyvesant, Hunter and Townsend Harris were Manhattan’s high schools for academically-gifted students, and Brooklyn’s 2.5 million residents had Brooklyn Tech. Dr. Meister, a graduate of Townsend Harris HS, City College and Columbia, realized that with the Bronx’s population having exploded from 431,000 in 1910 to 1,265,000 in 1930, the borough – despite Ogden Nash’s 1931 infamous New Yorker couplet “The Bronx? No Thonx!” –  had many excellent students who would benefit from a rigorous program of science and math. In the 1930’s, the Bronx was referred to as the “Jewish borough,” as more than 40 percent of its residents were Jewish.

A September 18, 1938 New York Times article, “School of Science Starts Its Career,”  erroneously predicted that the school’s graduates who would not attend college “will have the training needed to become hospital technicians, department of sanitation workers, laboratory assistants, park or museum officials, experts in food markets, or general workers in the semi-skilled professions.”

Ironically, in 1994, Joseph Lelyveld, Bronx Science ’54 and son of a distinguished American rabbi, became the executive editor of the NYT. Other Bronx Science alumni who have written for The Times include Clyde Haberman, Anna Kisselgoff and the late William Safire.

Despite the hilarious prediction of the 1938 New York Times, more than 95 percent of Bronx Science’s graduates have earned at least a bachelor’s degree, and no American high school during the last 65 years has produced more graduates with doctoral or professional degrees. For its first 40 years, a majority of students at Bronx Science were Jewish, while today it is estimated that 10 or 15 percent of the student body is Jewish.

Among the distinguished scientists who attended Bronx Science during Dr. Meister’s tenure between 1938 and 1958 are five Nobel Laureates in Physics – Roy Glauber, Leon Cooper, Melvin Schwartz, Sheldon Glashow, Steven Weinberg – one Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, Robert Lefkowitz, and six National Medal of Science recipients – Mathematician Barry Mazur, Biologist Charles Yanofsky, Biochemist Bruce Ames, Astrophysicist Peter Goldreich, Chemist Stuart Rice and Computer Scientist Leonard Kleinrock.

Drs. Weinberg and Lefkowitz also received the Medal of Science, the nation’s highest scientific honor. On two occasions in recent years, Professor Weinberg of the University of Texas at Austin cancelled lectures at British universities in protest against the many academicians in that nation who have vociferously advocated an anti-Semitic boycott of their Israeli colleagues. Another Bronx Science graduate from the 1950’s who, unlike The Times’ Joseph Lelyveld, has been a staunch defender of Israeli is Martin Peretz, who until last year was the publisher of The New Republic. Indeed, during the last 65 years, hundreds of Bronx Science alumni have made aliyah to Israel, including journalist Ruthie Blum-Leibowitz, class of ’76, whose parents are Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter. Her father and brother, John Podhoretz, have edited  Commentary Magazine.

A Sept. 1942 New York Times article, “War Studies Voted For City Schools,” describes Dr. Meister leadership role in designing science and math courses for the city’s high schools that would prepare students for technological and aviation jobs when they, after graduation, were inducted into the nation’s armed forces. Between Sept. 1942 and Jan. 1943, Dr. Meister was granted a leave of absence by the Board of Education to work under Lieut. Gen. Brehon Somervell, the military’s Service of Supply chief, helping to “organize similar courses in schools throughout the country.”

In 1946, in recognition of the tremendous contributions of America women to the nation’s World War II military, science and technological victories, Dr. Meister successfully lobbied to have female students admitted into Bronx Science. By contrast, a historic lawsuit, initiated by 13-year-old Brooklyn resident Alice De Rivera in 1969, was required for girls to gain admission into Stuyvesant that year and into Brooklyn Tech in 1972.

During the last six decades, Bronx Science has more alumnae who became medical doctors than any other American high school. Today, half of the students in the nation’s medical schools are female, which is a direct result of Dr. Meister’s visionary brilliance of 67 years ago.  Not surprisingly, Dr. Meister’s daughter, Dr. Anna Burton, a psychiatrist who attended Music & Art HS, graduated from New York Medical College in  1948.  In a recent telephone conversation, Dr. Burton recalled the incessant harassment, from her male fellow students and professors, she had suffered as an isolated female medical student nearly 70 years ago.

In 1958, after 20 years of leading Bronx Science, Dr. Meister was succeeded as principal by Dr. Alexander Taffel, whose superb 20-year tenure produced two other Nobel Laureates in Physics, Russell Hulse and H. David Politzer. But Dr. Meister didn’t retire from educational administration; instead he became the founding president of Bronx Community College, which he led until 1966. This mind-boggling career switch exemplifies his unwavering commitment to America’s highest democratic ideals, which he believed required that a college education be available not just to the nation’s highest-achieving 10 or 15 percent of high school seniors.

In 1962, he publicly rebuked Dr. Conant for not supporting the greater availability of a college education for the vast majority of American high school students who did not have sterling academic records. In 1964, Dr. Abraham Tauber, the dean of the faculty of BCC, wrote to Ogden Nash, requesting that he update or modify his four-word condemnation of the borough more than three decades earlier. The poet “contritely” apologized for the “sins of my smart-alec youth,” and ended with a new grammatically-creative couplet: “The Bronx? God Bless Them!”

The best evidence of Dr. Meister’s remarkable prescience is that President George Bush in 2002 appointed one of Bronx Community College’s graduates, Dr. Richard Carmona, the Surgeon General of the United States.  Dr. Carmona, a Puerto-Rican American, had dropped out of DeWitt Clinton HS in the mid-1960’s, served as a combat medic in Vietnam, earned  his GED during military service and then received an associate degree from BCC after his honorable discharge. He proceeded to earn B.S. and M.D. degrees from the University of California at San Francisco.

Another lasting legacy of Dr. Meister’s is that public service has been imprinted into Bronx Science’s DNA and into the hearts of many alumni. Prominent graduates who have held leading positions in the U.S. government include Dr. Harold Brown, Secretary of Defense in the Carter administration, June Ellenoff O’Neill, former director of the Congressional Budget Office, Congresspersons Nita Lowey, Alan Grayson and Donald Ritter, Bill Lann Lee, the Justice Department’s assistant attorney general for civil rights during President Bill Clinton’s second term (he and I are members of the class of ’67), Ambassador to Austria Ronald Lauder, and Federal Judges Victor Marrero and Dora Irizzary.  Lauder is currently the head of the World Jewish Congress.

Bronx Science alumni who have held leadership positions in NYC include the current City Comptroller John Liu and a predecessor Harrison J. Goldin, former Columbia University President Michael Sovern, long-term Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, Hayden Planetarium Director Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, businessman/philanthropist Leonard Lauder, President of the New York Public Library Dr. Anthony Marx and former Schools Chancellor Harold Levy. Lauder is co-chairing Bronx Science’s Waldorf-Astoria gala, and he just donated a $1 billion Cubist art collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (My public service in NYC consisted of teaching in the public schools between 1985 and 2009.)

On Saturday night at 50th St. and Park Ave., hundreds of Bronx Science alumni, whether we were Dr. Meister’s students or not, will raise a toast to the inimitable career of a great New Yorker and one of the nation’s leading educators of the 20th century. However, we alumni have two major unfinished tasks in ensuring that Dr. Meister’s incredible legacy is known to current and future generations of Bronx Science students.  A month ago on the subway, I met an alumna from the 1990’s who had never even heard of him.

First, when I spoke with Dr. Meister’s daughter, I had asked where he or his family had deposited his professional and personal papers.  Dr. Burton replied that they haven’t been donated to or purchased by any library, and she wasn’t even sure what papers still existed, beyond his Columbia University doctoral dissertation. Dr. Marx, president of The New York Public Library, should actively reach out to Dr. Meister’s descendants to acquire any of his extant papers.

Secondly, the school’s alumni should commission from a prominent historian of science a biography of Dr. Meister.  I am certain that such a book would find many readers beyond the grateful graduates of the Bronx High School of Science. In fact, across America today, there are nearly 100 high schools that are members of the National Consortium For Specialized Secondary Schools of Mathematics, Science & Technology. And among the 15 founding schools in 1988 of the NCSSSMST were Bronx Science, Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech. Undoubtedly, the key educator during the last century in the growth of specialized high schools for math, science and technology is Dr. Morris Meister.