Dr. Harry Friedman dies at the age of 96
By ERIN ELLIOTT BRYAN / Community News Editor
Dr. Harry Friedman, described by his mother as her “little American baby,” grew up to become a beloved and well-respected Minneapolis ophthalmologist, and a founder of Mount Sinai Hospital and the Phillips Eye Institute. He mentored several generations of physicians and taught them to always put their relationship with their patient above anything else.
“People just absolutely adored him. He had a way of making people always feel like they were special,” said Friedman’s daughter, Sharon Gordon. “He knew all his patients’ family histories, too. It was in the days when he could spend lots of time with each patient.”
Friedman died April 5 at an assisted living facility in Boston, where he had lived for the past two years. He was 96.
In remarks at Friedman’s funeral, Rabbi Merle Singer said that Friedman “never lost touch with the child within.”
“The importance of academic scholarship and the joy of making a difference in people’s lives, it’s all there,” Singer said. “The Harry we loved so dearly — a man of quiet confidence, who knew how to take time for fun — over his 96 years, there are so many memories of his acts of loving care.”
- Dr. Harry Friedman in 2008.
Friedman was the youngest of seven children — and the only one born in the United States — of Rabbi Samuel and Mary Friedman. The family emigrated from Odessa, Russia, and moved from South Minneapolis to North Minneapolis when Friedman was four years old.
His father was a schochet (ritual slaughterer) and mohel (circumciser). Though his parents encouraged education for each of the children, money wasn’t always available.
“They all have wonderful success stories, but times were rough,” Gordon said. “They didn’t have a lot of money. They just had a lot of love and encouragement for each other.”
Friedman’s father died when Friedman was just 12 years old and Friedman spent a lot of time with his older siblings. When his mother remarried and moved to South Minneapolis, Friedman lived with his brother and sister-in-law so he could finish his senior year at North High School.
Friedman always loved sports and became the sports editor of the Polaris, the school’s student newspaper. He was a member of North High’s 1933 championship basketball team, and was extremely active at the Emmanuel Cohen Center, where he played basketball and baseball.
From 1933 to 1939, Friedman attended the University of Minnesota undergraduate and medical schools. At the time, the school — a land-grant college — required that its students complete two years of military drill.
Friedman took the first year of his drill, but felt morally opposed to war — viewing himself as a conscientious objector.
“He was a remarkable man of integrity,” said Friedman’s son, Dr. Jeffrey Friedman. “He objected on the basis of his heart. He was opposed to violence.”
But when he saw Hitler marching across Europe, Friedman changed his view. After completing an internship in Minot, N.D., Friedman volunteered for the army in 1939.
“He, in principle, objected to violence, but said, If you’re going to kill my people, I’m not going to stand by passively and allow that to happen.”
Friedman was a physician with the 24th Evacuation Hospital and landed at Omaha Beach shortly after D-Day. Among his many experiences during the war, Friedman accompanied British soldiers who liberated the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
It was also during that time that Friedman took an interest in ophthalmology. After a residency in Cincinnati — where he met his wife, Gertrude — he returned to Minneapolis to practice, where he was one of the first specially trained ophthalmologists in the city. Lingering anti-Semitism, however, made it difficult to acquire privileges at any local hospital.
Friedman was among the founders of Mount Sinai Hospital, which was built in 1951 and proclaimed itself a “nonsectarian facility.” He often took his children along on Sunday rounds.
“Intellectually, my dad inculcated in me a fascination with the human body and human biology from a young age,” Jeff Friedman said. “I watched my dad do surgery at Mount Sinai, when he took me into the operating room… I was probably eight years old.”
Friedman later opened a practice in Minneapolis with Dr. Aaron Nathenson, a former patient. The practice eventually moved to St. Louis Park before the pair joined Hennepin County Medical Center in the mid-1980s.
Nathenson said Friedman was a great role model for the residents he taught and was well liked by everyone he knew.
“He influenced me quite a bit. He always encouraged me to attend meetings, learn the new technology, don’t fall behind,” Nathenson said. “He was a man of supreme ethical integrity.”
Friedman leaves a “commitment to the practice of medicine” that will be his legacy for the doctors with whom he worked, added Nathenson.
Another aspect of his legacy, Nathenson said, was the establishment of the Friedman Resident Research Award in Ophthalmology at the University of Minnesota.
Once his children left for school, Nathenson included Friedman in his family’s holiday celebrations; Nathenson’s youngest daughter called him “Grandpa.”
“He was ‘uncle’ and ‘grandfather’ to everyone who was even vaguely blood-related and often to many people who were not,” said Friedman’s son, Dr. Rohn Friedman. “Everybody wanted to claim him in some way because he was a very loving and beloved, supportive figure who made people feel good.”
Both Rohn and Jeff Friedman are psychiatrists and their sister, Sharon, worked as a psychiatric social worker (the same field as their mother). All three children said their father had a profound influence on their career paths.
“My father always loved what he did, taking care of people, and probably was as much a psychiatrist as he was an ophthalmologist,” Rohn Friedman said. “He was the ophthalmologist for a few generations of people, all of whom loved him and loved going to see him.”
Friedman enjoyed a long career that included many honors and accolades, and he served as president of several ophthalmology organizations. He loved sports and playing golf — achieving a hole in one at age 85.
In 1984, Friedman lost his wife to breast cancer. In 1992, he married family friend Harriet Fingerman, the widow of his medical school lab partner and longtime friend. The two eventually moved to Roitenberg Assisted Living in St. Louis Park, where they lived until Harriet’s death in 2010.
Friedman then moved to a facility in the Boston area to be closer to his children and quickly became a favorite among the staff.
“He was an uncomplaining, smiling man who enjoyed his life and was grateful for everything, so staff loved that,” Rohn Friedman said. “[He taught me] to appreciate that the most important thing in life is your relationships with people, with family, with friends, with the people that you work with professionally. That’s really the most important, most rewarding aspect of things. And to do something you really love.”
Friedman was preceded in death by his two wives and siblings. He is survived by his three children, four stepchildren, grandchildren, stepgrandchildren and many loving nieces and nephews.
(American Jewish World, 4.27.12)