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Abraham Flexner and a Life in Learning

In this, the first biography of Abraham Flexner (1866–1959), distinguished scholar Thomas N. Bonner offers an engaging and insightful view of one of the most influential figures in twentieth-century American education. From his early, pathbreaking work in experimental primary schools to the founding of the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, Abraham Flexner's influence on American education was deep, pervasive, and enduring. In Thomas N. Bonner, Flexner has at long last found the biographer that his critical role in American education deserves.

The son of poor Jewish immigrants in Louisville, Kentucky, Flexner was raised in the Reconstruction South and educated at the Johns Hopkins University in the first decade of that institution's existence. Upon earning his degree in 1886, he returned to Louisville to found—four years before John Dewey's Chicago "laboratory school"—an experimental school based on progressive ideas that soon won the close attention of Harvard President Charles Eliot. After a successful nineteen-year career as a teacher and principal, he turned his attention to medical education. His 1910 survey—known today as the Flexner Report—stimulated much-needed, radical changes in the field and, with its emphasis on full-time clinical teaching, remains to this day the most widely cited document on how doctors best learn their profession.

Flexner's subsequent projects—a book on medical education in Europe and a comparative study of medical education in Europe and America—remain unsurpassed in range and insight. For fifteen years a senior officer in the Rockefeller-supported General Education Board, he helped raise money—more than 6 billion in today's dollars—for education in medicine and other subjects. His devastating critique of American higher education in 1936 raised the hackles of educators—but ultimately raised important questions as well. Three years later he created and led the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, convincing Albert Einstein to accept the first appointment at the newly created institute.

Brilliant, abrasive, tenderhearted, and fundamentally a decent, farseeing man, Abraham Flexner accomplished much good in the world. His story, based on new archival sources and told with verve and wit, is sure to become the definitive work on a man and his era.

About the Author

Thomas N. Bonner is Distinguished Professor Emeritus and President Emeritus of Wayne State University. He is the author of five books on the history of medicine and education, and two textbooks. He has been awarded two Guggenheim Fellowships and was a Rockefeller Foundation Resident at Baellagio, Italy. The former president of three universities and colleges–the University of New Hampshire, Union College, and Wayne State University–he is the recipient of major, multi-year grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Institutes of Health, and has been awarded three honorary degrees.


"Iconoclast is a thoughtful, wonderfully crafted, solidly researched account of an uncommon life that far exceeds Abraham Flexner's association with reform in medical education... Bonner's labors have produced a critical, insightful portrait of Flexner as a brilliant, tireless, extraordinarily persuasive visionary. In addition to detailed portraits of the man 'at the vortex of swiftly moving scientific, educational, and philanthropic currents' in higher education in the United States, Bonner also provides an account of Flexner's personal life... For all of us in academic medicine, Iconoclast offers a learned portrait of the distance traveled in medical education during the past 100 years, along with consideration of the curricular and pedagogical problems that persist."

- Delese Wear - New England Journal of Medicine

"Bonner's great achievement in this scholarly and captivating book is to model Flexner's critical appraisal skills in writing about him. Even Flexner himself lacked critical awareness in his autobiography... Bonner, on the other hand, offers a gentle and thoughtful appraisal. The elements that contribute to Flexner's greatness—perseverance, vision, clear thinking, and fair mindedness—are all balanced with his weaknesses—an obstinate unwillingness to retract and clouded political insight... Bonner dissects Flexner's contribution with meticulous scholarship, avoiding all cheap adulation or debunking. This is an outstanding book."

- Ed Peile - British Medical Journal

"The book offers historical insights about philanthropy, educational reform, and institutional governance and decision making... In Bonner's capable hands, Flexner emerges an interesting figure whose successes are combined with contradictions and shortcomings."

- Amy E. Wells - Academe

"An outstanding and thorough study of this remarkable American educator who, more than anyone before or since, defined what a medical school should be, left indelible marks on public education, and founded one of the most innovative centers of advanced study in the world. Bonner adroitly portrays in this masterful biography what America and the world owes to Flexner for his vision, creativity, tenacity, and advocacy of progressive education."

- John S. Haller, Jr. - Journal of American History

"Few nonphysicians have had as profound and long-lasting an effect on modern American medicine as Abraham Flexner... An excellent book about a highly significant and neglected figure."

- Janet A. Tighe, Ph.D. - Journal of the American Medical Association

"Not only fills a major void but also provides an important evaluation of an individual whose contributions to education and a variety of social problems have generally been overlooked... Bonner's biography restores Flexner to the position of importance that he merits... This biography is a major addition to American historiography."

- Gerald N. Grob - Journal of the History of Medicine

"Excellent... Deeply researched, carefully presented... This thorough, creative biography adjusts our view of this powerful man so engaged in an astounding array of twentieth-century educational developments."

- Linda Eisenmann - H-Education, H-Net Reviews

"Thanks to Thomas Bonner's Iconoclast, we finally have the biography Flexner deserves and readers seek."

- John R. Thelin - Journal of Higher Education

"Though [Abraham] Flexner wrote an autobiography, until now we have had no comprehensive biography. Fortunately, Thomas Bonner has filled that gap with Iconoclast: Abraham Flexner and a Life in Learning. As a former university president with significant experience working with donors, Bonner is well qualified to understand his subject."

- Martin Morse Wooster - Philanthropy

"As Thomas Bonner relates in his excellent biography, [Abraham] Flexner initiated several... significant developments in American secondary and higher education over some three-quarters of a century. "

- David Mitch - History of Education Quarterly

"Iconoclast captures the boldness as well as the sweeping impact of Flexner's work in the field of American education in the first half of the twentieth century. "

- Adam R. Nelson - Paedagogica Historica


"If you want to know why more than half of the Nobel Prizes in medicine and science since 1945 have gone to Americans, you must read Thomas Bonner's book. Abraham Flexner was the architect of a revolution in medical education in the United States that explains how this country became the medical mecca of the world. Bonner brings Flexner's remarkable story to life with clarity, sympathy, and verve."

- James H. Jones, author of Bad Blood and Alfred C. Kinsey: A Public/Private Life

"At last we have a life of one of the most powerful shapers of medicine, science, and higher education. This beautifully crafted life of Flexner will rescue a giant of his times from fragmentation and, sometimes, misunderstanding. Bonner has written not only a very important book but a deeply thoughtful and searching interrogation of recurrent social and moral problems that take on life and meaning in a concrete, historical setting."

- John C. Burnham, Ohio State University

"Abraham Flexner was one of the great innovators in education of the twentieth-century. Thomas N. Bonner, a distinguished historian as well as an educator/manager, is the biographer Flexner deserves."

- Daniel M. Fox, President, Milbank Memorial Fund

"This biography is a solid, well-researched study of a towering figure in American biomedical research."

- Darwin Stapleton, Rockefeller Archive Center

"This is a brilliant, beautifully crafted, and much needed biography of one of the legendary figures in American medicine and higher education. Once again Thomas Bonner has shown that he is one of the great medical historians of our time."

- Kenneth M. Ludmerer, Washington University
Johns Hopkins University Press
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424 Pages
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