VA History- Dr. Ida Maria Stein – Nazi Germany Refugee – Walla Walla VA hospital

Seventy-five years ago, in the fall of 1940, Dr. Maria Stein became one of thousands of European refugees who fled certain death under Adolph Hitler’s Nazi regime and came to America. No one could have predicted then that this German pediatrician would end up becoming the first woman doctor at the VA’s Walla Walla hospital.

Ida Maria Stein was born on November 11, 1893, in Altenburg, Germany. Little is known of Maria’s family and early life other than that her father was an affluent industrialist and her mother was Jewish. She  obtained her medical degree from Heidelberg University in 1917 and married an assistant professor from the University of Prague the following year. After she finished her medical internships, she served roughly 4 months as a volunteer physician in the Austrian Army during World War I.  After the war she worked as a pediatrician at the children’s hospital in Gottingen (Germany) under Dr. Friedrich Goeppert, father of future Nobel Prize laureate Maria Goeppert Mayer. Dr. Maria Stein was 10 years older than Maria Goeppert, but they became close friends.

By 1930 economic conditions were especially bleak in Germany and Dr. Stein ultimately divorced her husband who took a university position in England. By then her friend Maria Goeppert had married physicist Joseph E. Mayer and lived in the U.S.  When Adolph Hitler came into power in 1933, the world as she knew it changed forever. As Hitler’s expansionist and genocidal plans became evident, many of her friends and family, including her brother Adalbert and his wife Erna, left the country. After losing her medical practice in 1935, she knew that she, too, had to leave. Thousands of German Jews swamped travel offices trying to get out of the country at the same time as Dr. Stein.


Her friend Maria Goeppert Mayer, then a secretary for the Society of Friends (Quakers), feared for Dr. Stein’s life and made arrangements that allowed her to leave Germany until firmer plans could be devised later. In the spring of 1939 Dr. Maria Stein fled her German homeland with the equivalent of $2.50 in her pocket.  She stayed as a guest of the Friends (Quakers) near Edinburgh, Scotland, for roughly 18 months, teaching German to her hosts’ children while awaiting a visa to the U.S.  Many countries had set quota limits for immigrants, as the number of war refugees from Europe and China swelled when they fled their native lands, and there was fear that the immigrants would claim jobs rightfully due to citizens.

On October 19, 1940 Dr. Stein sailed on the S.S. Cameronia from Glasgow, Scotland, to New York City and, at the age of 46, began a new and unplanned for chapter in her life. She applied for U.S. citizenship almost immediately and stayed with the Mayers and other friends while she learned English. Her friendship with Maria Goeppert Mayer brought her into the social circle of important scientists of the day including Albert Einstein, Max and Hedi Born, and others.  Her brother, Adalbert, an OB/GYN doctor, had settled in New Jersey, so they were able to keep in touch. She passed the New York State Medical Board examination in 1942 and shortly afterwards accepted a position as bacteriologist for the West Virginia Health Department. She obtained her citizenship in 1946 and left West Virginia in 1947 to become physician for the Department of Interior at the Mt. Edgecumbe School in Sitka, Alaska. She then transferred to the Tacoma Indian School in Washington state and that experience, working with Native American children infected with tuberculosis (TB), led her to change her career focus to TB.


In 1949 Dr. Maria Stein was appointed as a physician at the Livermore VA tuberculosis hospital in California. This was three years after VA appointed the first women doctors in its history in Washington, DC.  In 1952 she transferred to the Walla Walla VA hospital, also a tuberculosis hospital at the time, where she became Walla Walla’s first woman medical doctor.

She never remarried, but remained connected to her lone known surviving brother, and acclimated to American life very well. She became very passionate about fighting tuberculosis, held leadership positions in state and local tuberculosis and medical organizations, and often facilitated TB testing and blood drives as a volunteer physician for various organizations. In her new life in the New World, she evaded talk of her past or family, but made the most of her personal talents and interests:  she translated for German and Braille, often worked with children in her free time, traveled often, gave lectures that promoted good health, and was active in the arts, especially music.

She was in her mid-70s when she retired from the Walla Walla VA hospital on March 1, 1967. After retirement she remained active in her field and community until her death on November 16, 1990 at the age of 93.

Dr. Maria Stein lived long enough to see the demise of VA’s TB hospitals. The year after she retired, the last one, located in Indianapolis (Cold Spring Rd.), officially stopped functioning as a TB hospital on December 31, 1967 and began operations as a general medical and surgical hospital the next day on January 1, 1968.


Photos: top – German Jews trying to emigrate, January 22, 1939, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum; bottom – Dr. Maria Stein, March 5, 1967, Union Bulletin.

Historian, Veterans Health Administration


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