A child of German Jewish immigrants, Flexner was born in 1866 in Louisville, Kentucky, the sixth of nine children. His father, Moritz Flexner, was a hat merchant, and his mother, Esther Abraham, was a seamstress. The Flexners valued education highly, but their losses in the financial panic of 1873 ended their hopes of sending their sons to college.
With the help of his oldest brother, Jacob, who was by then married and the owner of his own drugstore, Flexner attended Johns Hopkins University. Flexner spent two years at Johns Hopkins and earned a B.A. in Classics in 1886. Johns Hopkins stressed postgraduate education, then very rare in the United States, and Flexner hoped to continue his studies but the fellowship he sought eluded him. He returned to Louisville to teach Latin and Greek at Louisville High School.
In 1890, he founded an experimental school, which had no formal curriculum, exams, or grades, but excelled at preparing students for prestigious colleges. With the success of his school, Flexner was able to help assist his older brother Simon, who had apprenticed at Jacob’s drugstore, in attending Johns Hopkins. Simon became a noted pathologist and bacteriologist and, subsequently, the Director of the Rockefeller Institute (later Rockefeller University). Flexner was also able to support his sister Mary so that she could attend Bryn Mawr College. Having done well with his business, Jacob sold his drugstore and attended medical school. He went on to practice medicine in Louisville. Bernard studied law and became a prominent lawyer in Chicago and New York.
In 1898, Flexner married teacher and aspiring playwright Anne Crawford, a former pupil in his school and a graduate of Vassar College. Crawford’s financial success on Broadway with the production of her play Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch enabled Flexner to pursue a master’s degree in psychology from Harvard and spend a year at the universities of Berlin and Heidelberg. The couple had two daughters, Jean and Eleanor. Jean was among the first employees at the Division of Labor Standards in Washington, and Eleanor became a pioneer in the field of women’s studies.
Flexner devoted much of his life to education, attempting to gain a better understanding of its place in society. He questioned the role of higher education in America, strove to understand the place of the American university, and dedicated himself to improving the system of medical education in the United States. He authored books and reports on the subject, and his efforts continue to resonate today.
In a letter from the Founders to the Trustees of the Institute in June 1930, Flexner’s belief in offering opportunities to all individuals rings through:
It is fundamental in our purpose, and our express desire, that in the appointments to the staff and faculty as well as in the admission of workers and students, no account shall be taken, directly or indirectly, of race, religion, or sex. We feel strongly that the spirit characteristic of America at its noblest, above all the pursuit of higher learning, cannot admit of any conditions as to personnel other than those designed to promote the objects for which this institution is established, and particularly with no regard whatever to accidents of race, creed, or sex.
Throughout his life, Flexner had manifested a profound reverence for scholarship. In 1951, at age 85, he was pictured in the New York Times with fellow students at Columbia University. The photo caption read: “The man who raised and spent $600,000,000 through the Rockefeller General Education Board and headed the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton sparks his ‘retirement’ with courses at Columbia, currently in European history and Soviet public administration.”
Flexner died on September 21, 1959, at the age of 92. Read more about his work and legacy.