Chapter 01: Growing Up in Chicago with Unusual Opportunities


Chapter 01: Growing Up in Chicago with Unusual Opportunities



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In this chapter, Dr. Freireich talks about growing up in Chicago during the Great Depression, his early education, his difficult home life, the early influence of a family physician on his life, attending medical school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and being disqualified for service in World War II.



Publication Date



The Making Cancer History® Voices Oral History Collection, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center


Houston, Texas

Topics Covered

Personal Background; Personal Background; Educational Path; Character, Values, Beliefs, Talents; Inspirations to Practice Science/Medicine; Influences from People and Life Experiences; The Patient; The History of Health Care, Patient Care

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.


History of Science, Technology, and Medicine | Oncology | Oral History


Lesley Brunet, MA

Why don't we start with your personal background and things that impacted your future career? You're from Chicago?

Emil J Freireich, MD

I was born and raised in Chicago. My earliest recollections were of my mother, Mary Klein Freireich. My father, David Freireich, died when I was 2. I had a sister, Annette Freireich Foosaner, 3 years older than me. I was born in '27. My father died in 1929, undoubtedly related to the great crash. My mother is an uneducated peasant girl from a small town in Hungary. My father, as far as I can tell from talking to my mother, was a much older man. He was older than her by maybe a decade. He served in the military and spent a long time in a prison camp with the Russians. When he got out, he went back to his village and swept up my mother, who came from a very large family. In the very large families in Europe, they didn't get a lot of attention. They fell in love, got married, and ran off to the United States.

Then my sister and I were born, and the Depression hit. My understanding from my mother is that my father opened a Hungarian restaurant in Chicago. When the Depression hit, he was totally wiped out, and then he died suddenly. My own theory is it was a suicide, but you can't tell. No one knows. My mother wasn't very intelligent. She had no relatives in the United States, and she spoke minimal English. My father had a brother here, but apparently, when he died, they abandoned her. She was all alone with 2 children, so she went to work in a sweatshop, which is what everybody did. According to her, she earned 2 cents for every hat that she put a brim on. She used to do millinery work in Europe.

My first recollections of Chicago, where we lived in a very low socioeconomic area, are are are that I was raised by an Irish immigrant maid whose name was Mary. I don't know her last name. Mary worked for room and board.

Lesley Brunet, MA

She lived with your family for room and board?

Emil J Freireich, MD

Yes, for room and board; that was all. She had no money. She couldn't live anywhere else. She raised my sister and me. My sister was kind of a junior mother, and Mary supervised us. I don't remember how long during the day my mom worked, but it was essentially all the time, so I never really saw her much. We grew up in the community. People always ask me if I speak German or Hungarian. I never spoke to my mother or my father, so I just grew up, learning what you could.

Have you ever seen the TV show Welcome Back, Kotter? I love seeing Kotter. It reminds me of my primary education. In a low socioeconomic school in those days, education was essentially discipline. It was just a matter of keeping you off the street for 4 hours. There was a little bit of teaching, but nothing significant. It was mostly food, shelter, and not getting killed.

Lesley Brunet, MA

This was public school?

Emil J Freireich, MD

Yes. That's what my early days consisted of. Things got better in the mid-'30s, and I can't tell you exactly when, but my mother eventually had an arranged marriage with a man who had lost his wife and needed someone to take care of his son. They had this arrangement that they would live together if she would take care of the son, and he would give her some money. She could come out of the sweatshop, and she came home. This stepfather was an insurance salesman. He had a big, thick book, and he would go from door to door and collect a policy, which paid 25 or 50 cents a week. You're talking nickels and dimes, so we didn't have any increase in our standard of living. Both of them were destroyed people. When you emerge from horrible situations, you're destroyed, like veterans with their ugly memories. He was a terribly ugly person, and he used to work very long hours.

My mother stopped working at the sweatshop, and they didn't have any money, so she fired Mary. Whoa! Mary was really my mother figure, and when this strange lady came into the house and got rid of my "mother" I was still very young. I must have been 9 or 10. We'd never had much of a relationship, my mother and I. I didn't care much for her. I never forgave her for firing Mary. We loved Mary. She disappeared, and there was my mother and this ugly, ugly man and his son, who was 6 months older than I. We were practically the same age. My sister was still in the picture.

We went off to middle school and high school. The marriage was impossible. No one could live with this guy. I went to the high school one day with my stepbrother, and I recall my sister coming to school, calling us out of class, and saying, "We no longer live at this place. We live in a different place." My mother had picked up all the belongings and moved out. My sister was working by that time. I forgot what she did; it was some menial job. My mother was working as a salesperson for some department store, and we had enough money to live independently. My stepbrother elected to come with us, because he couldn't stand his father, either.

My life really began during high school. Before the Depression, if you lived in a low socioeconomic area, the children only saw women. There were no men, because the old family structure was still intact. The men worked, and the women stayed at home with the children. But during the Depression, the women got whatever jobs they could, and the men were all in the sweatshops working their heads off. So as a young person growing up, the only people you were in contact with were women. You never saw any men, except occasionally a baseball player on the news or something like that. We only had radios, remember.

When I was ill, we had a family physician living in the community who was a Tree Grows in Brooklyn-type. He was one of these guys who worked for exchanges. People gave him food and occasionally a dollar, and he lived and cared for everybody in the community. Everybody knew him. When I got sick with tonsillitis, he would come to the house and tell my mother to give me ice cream. I just loved Dr. Rosenbloom.

Lesley Brunet, MA

His name was Rosenbloom?

Emil J Freireich, MD

Yes, Rosenbloom. It might have been Rosenburg or something. I think Rosenbloom. I used to have dreams about being a famous doctor when I was around 11 or 13. I used to dream of being like Dr. Rosenbloom, going to people's houses and administering to children and adults. I thought that was a great thing. What else could you be? I didn't have any other ideas.

So that was in the back of my mind, and then I went to high school. As I say, all you thought about was survival. We used to have gangs, and people got beat up. We had to shop for food, so we had to steal tires, hubcaps, and anything to get along. In high school, I was still prepubescent. I don't know if I was a problem or if I was brilliant, but the teachers had advanced me so that I finished high school when I was just 15. I was short, fat, and kind of easy to pick on. I was the kind of kid that other kids would kick around.

In high school, my mother and my sister said I should take shorthand and typing, which I did. That was the major way you made a living in those days. You did shorthand and you did typing. But you also had minimum requirements, so I had to take a course in physics. In physics, we had a teacher who was an educated man from a better socioeconomic class. He deliberately taught in the low socioeconomic schools because he wanted to find the gems there. He taught a physics course, and it was really interesting. It was the first time I found a course that I felt I was really learning something. He was telling us about the laws of motion and this and that. Then he had a science fair, which is what teachers would do. You want to stimulate kids to think. I did a project on the Bernoulli theorem. I can remember it like it was yesterday. The Bernoulli theorem is very simple. If you're dumb and uneducated and barely read and write, you know what the Bernoulli theorem is. It's the basis of flight. It's the fact that the pressure is a function of how fast the gas moves.

The Bernoulli principle appealed to me, so my science project was a jet of water with a Ping-Pong ball. You've seen that. It won't come off, because when it goes off to one side, it goes faster along the light side. So I did that and won the prize for the best science project that year. My professor called me in. I've forgotten his name. He said, "Freireich, you're pretty smart. You ought to go to college." I said, "That sounds like a reasonable idea." I really liked him, and I said, "What is college?" He said, "Well, there's this place in Champaign-Urbana." You see, during the Depression, it's like King of Siam. Your world is 5 square miles. We didn't have cars. We didn't have transportation. You couldn't imagine that there was anything outside of that little area. I used to walk to school and back. I would occasionally ride a streetcar to the baseball park to see the Cubs, and to the lake to swim, but that was the world. "Champaign-Urbana? Where is that?" "Well, it's 150 miles away in the middle of the state," he said, "but it's very inexpensive to get there. You just take this Illinois Central. It goes right to Champaign-Urbana, Illinois." I went home, and I said to my mother, "My teacher says I should go to college." She said, "Well, what do you do about that?" I said, "Well, I'm supposed to have $25." "Twenty-five dollars? Well, we'll see what we can do about it."

My mother had gotten attached to her little community, and within this community there was a lady who was a Christian Scientist. She had a husband who died and left her some money. She didn't have any children, and she was doing good things. My mother had heard about her. She put on my best shirt, and we went off and got interviewed by this lady. She said, "You look promising," and she gave us $25. When the time came, I took my laundry bag and got on the Illinois Central Railroad. It was $6, one-way, to Champaign-Urbana. I got off the train in Champaign-Urbana, and asked someone, "Where do I go?" "Well, you go see the registrar over there and get registered." So I went over there. They asked me, "What do you want to do?""I want to go to school." "Well, did you send your transcript down or an application?" I said, "Well, I didn't know anything about that. My professor told me if I just have $6, I'd be here." He said, "Well, don't worry about it. We'll take care of that. What do you want to be? What do you want to major in?" I said, "Well, I want to be a doctor," the only thing I could think of. He said, "Okay. Premed." He gave me my curriculum things, and he said, "I'm going to register you on a temporary basis." This was in 1943. I gave him $6, and I registered. He said he would contact my high school, but it turned out that our high school didn't send the transcripts because they didn't know how to do it. Not many people went to college from Tuley High School in Chicago.

I've been back to Tuley High School. It's now called Roberto Clemente High. The Tuley High School has been closed. Where I lived was mostly European immigrants, and now it's been replaced by Puerto Ricans. You know the Los Angeles riots and Watts? In Chicago it was North Avenue, Humboldt Park. That's where the riots were. They burned down my old neighborhood. It's been rebuilt, to some extent.

I had to get some books, and I had to get a place to live. They had a housing guy who sent me to see this lady. She put me up in a bedroom in her house for $6. After this, the train fare, and tuition, I only had $6 left. I've got to get books, I've got to get food, and I have to pay my rent in the future. So I went to work at a sorority house, cleaning floors. I got $6 a week, and that paid my rent. Then I got a job that got me food for waiting tables, and that paid for my food.

In 1944, when you turned 18, you got inducted into the army. I got notification that I would go to the army. I stopped studying. I said, "Hey, I'm going to be military. I'm going to kill Japs and Nazis." Young kids were very idealistic during the Second World War. We hated Nazis and Japs. When you get the pre-induction physical, you line up, they take all your clothes off, and make sure you don't feel like a person anymore. Then they start poking on you all over. After they're done, at the last stop, the guy says, "Has anyone here ever broken a bone or had any trauma?" I had an illness, which is called Osgood Schlatter disease, when I was in high school. It's a separation of the tibial tubercle. I used to play basketball, and when you're growing, during a growth spurt, your epiphyses are soft, so if you do a lot of jumping, you can separate the the tibial tubercle. In those days, they used to put a cast on it, and I walked on a cast. So I said, "I broke my leg."

I went into the next room, and there was this guy who came straight out of M*A*S*H. He was smoking a cigarette and was a dirty, filthy guy. He was a foul-mouthed guy. He said, "What are you doing here? This war is stupid. You're a bunch of ugly, dumb people." He terrified me. I mean, I was scared. I was a patriotic American. I want to kill Japs.

So you go to the next room, put your clothes on, and then you come to the end of the line. There's a guy there, and he gives you your paper telling you when you're supposed to report for duty. I was classified 4-F. That means it's physically impossible to serve in the military. That was a humiliation, because 4-F guys were all guys whose parents had influence and convinced the draft board to make them 4-F so they don't have to get killed in the war. Those people were considered traitors and weaklings. I was really humiliated. I'll never forget that. So I had to go back to college and finish school.

Lesley Brunet, MA

Was this in the summer or in the middle of the school year?

Emil J Freireich, MD

It was in the middle of the school year. I had to go to Chicago to get inducted. Then I had to go back to Champaign. I had to catch up. It was second semester, and I didn't have any money for books, so I went back to the guy, and I said, "I don't have any money for books." The guy said, "Well, you apply for this scholarship." I applied for a scholarship, and I got it, because I got A's in my first year. It was a William J. Cook Scholarship, and they paid my tuition and my books. Now I'm on easy street, because I'm earning $6 a week and I had tuition and books paid. I was in good shape. One of the fellows I met in my class was a guy who had polio when he was young. He became a very good friend of mine. After the induction thing, I went back to school, bemoaning the fact that I was 4-F. He said, "You know, nothing wrong with being 4-F. I get money from the Illinois Department of Rehabilitation because I have polio. They buy all my books, and I get an allowance every year. It's terrific. They want me to be a normal person." He said, "My counselor is coming around next week. I'll have him come and visit with you."

Lesley Brunet, MA

Because of your leg?

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Chapter 01: Growing Up in Chicago with Unusual Opportunities