The Extraordinary Dr Epstein is the true story of the life of a remarkable 19th century emigrant. By turns scholar, doctor, poet, farmhand, missionary, sailor, pastor, professor, journalist, university founder, Jew and Christian, Russian and American, Ephraim Epstein is a brilliant man with a consistent vision who constantly reinvents himself. Always convinced of his own integrity and determined that others see things his way, he moves on if he cannot be true to himself — even at the cost of what he holds most dear. His uncompromising character drives him across continents from Czarist Belarus through revolutionary Europe, abolitionist United States, the raw west of America’s Manifest Destiny and the post-Civil War Gilded Age.
His story opens in Belarus in 1846, when at 17 he chafes under the orthodox restrictions of the patriarchs of the family. Despite his yearnings for freedom of mind, he is deeply religious, loving and obedient, so, as first son of a large, successful Jewish family, he submits when his elders insist he marry his cousin Rachel. Because they cannot love each other, the marriage is a fateful crossroad, the first of the many in his life to turn him in a completely new direction. America is the answer and he arrives in New York in 1850, promising to send for his wife and daughter Sarah when he makes a success of himself in the land of freedom.
Ephraim’s questioning mind and spirit, his erudition and his love of life lead him to mentors as well as to obstacles throughout a career that spans the progress of medicine from bloodletting to germ theory to modern pharmaceuticals, and the interpretation of scripture from literal word of God to critical historical textual analysis. Early on, a Christian employer fascinated by the young, bright Hebrew gradually leads Ephraim to new religious growth. Conversion is convenient, some would say, because this leads to a theological degree and medical school. But clearly, as a missionary physician sent to Turkey to convert Sephardic Jews, the conversion is a matter of faith, not a career move. And not without penalty — his family declare him dead.
The book sees, time and again, the price of Ephraim’s self-regarded integrity. Sometimes he loses — to his dying mother when he gives way to her plea to return to Judaism, to his daughter who forces him to compromise himself when he is back in America and Christian again. Usually he wins — causing career change and uprooting his ever-growing family and devoted second wife Helena from comfortable Ohio to raw Dakota Territory to mountainous West Virginia and finally to Chicago.
Ephraim’s worst loss — a collapse of will, faith and self-confidence — comes at the death of his four year old son, an accident caused by the mis-filling of a prescription written by his own hand. In this defeat he sacrifices his profession as a physician. But tragedy ultimately cannot quell his essentially passionate mind and spirit which leads to triumph in a new cause, and sees him become, all too briefly, president of a university.
The Extraordinary Dr Epstein is based on solid fact, written as a novel to allow for insights, motivations and situations which fact alone cannot provide. The narrative honors documented evidence and includes historical contexts that directly impact on Ephraim’s life from the era of Czar Nicholas into the 20th century. Author Susan Lee Kerr, great-granddaughter of Ephraim Epstein, uses family tales, research and imagination to explore the many facets of this astonishing, incorrigible man of conviction.