Biographies/Edward K. Barsky

Tags: Member Of Communist Party Doctor American Ambulance Unit American Medical Bureau Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee Medical Committee for Human Rights City College of New York

Researcher: Emma Park, Stuyvesant '20

Edward K. Barsky was born on June 6, 1895. He grew up in New York, with his parents and five other siblings, and in his youth attended Townsend Harris High School in Queens. Like his father and brothers, who were all doctors, he entered the medical practice. He attended the City College of New York, then the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University. After graduating from the College of Physicians, he studied abroad in Europe--he visited Paris, Berlin, and Vienna. When he came back to the United States, he rose from being an intern, then visiting staff, then surgeon at Beth Israel Hospital, which his own father founded many years prior. He joined the Communist Party in 1935. When the Spanish Civil War broke out, Edward Barsky was an assistant surgeon, but he left his position to go help the cause. According to his passport, at the time he lived at 127 West South Street, NYC. He departed January 16, 1937, arriving in Spain in February. He was among the first doctors to travel to Spain to provide medical aid, departing only a few weeks after the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. During the War he helped to create the AMB (American Medical Bureau to Aid Spanish Democracy), and was a leading figure in directing staff and setting up hospitals. He was also head of the American Ambulance Unit. At one point, he and his staff were working 50 hours straight. He returned to the United States just once, but during this time he went on a speaking tour and raised “hundreds of thousands of dollars” and supplies for the cause. When he went back to Spain, he was named Surgeon General of International Sanitary Service, and was responsible for thousands of medical volunteers from all over the world. After the War, Barsky returned to Beth Israel Hospital. He married University of Wisconsin alum Vita Lauter, and together they had a daughter named Angela. He became the chairman of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, providing aid to Spanish Republican refugees who were suffering in the poor conditions of French refugee camps. While he was in office, the Committee raised nearly $400,000 within two years. He eventually found himself being investigated, and in June 1947 was convicted by the House of UnAmerican Activities for “contempt of Congress”, because the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee refused to turn in their financial records to the government. After three years of appeals, he was sentenced to six months in prison, serving time in the Federal Penitentiary (Petersburg, Virginia), and had to pay a fine of $500. He ended up serving five months. After serving, Barsky had his medical license suspended for six months--despite years of appeals--because, in the words of Judge William O. Douglas, “When a doctor cannot save lives in America because he is opposed to Franco in Spain, it is time to call a halt and look critically at the neurosis that has possessed us.” However, Barsky received support on an international level, many sending people even writing letters of sympathy-- “Eddie is a saint,” Ernest Hemingway once wrote to Milton Wolff, “That’s where we put our saints in this country--in jail.” Throughout the rest of his life, Edward Barsky remained committed and involved in progressive politics. He was involved in the New York Labor movement, and in the 1960s he served in the Medical Committee for Human Rights, which provided for the medical needs of the civil rights movement in the South. At the end of his life, Barsky was the consulting  surgeon at Beth Israel Hospital. He died in University Hospital on February 11, 1975, at the age of 78. (An obituary was written about him in the NY Times that week.)



“Barsky, Edward K.” The Abraham Lincoln Brigades Archives,

“Guide to the Edward K. Barsky Papers.” Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive,

“Dr. Edward Barsky, center, in uniform, head of the American Ambulance Unit…” Library of Congress, 1937,

“Edward Barsky, Surgeon, Dies; Joined Spanish Republican Side.” NY Times, 13 Feb 1975,