Listen to this article

URBANA — Philip Freedman, a pioneering medical researcher and administrator — whose long career included a top-secret assignment at Berlin’s infamous Spandau prison — died Sunday, March 15, 2020, at home in Clark-Lindsey Village, Urbana. He was 93. 

A former University of Illinois professor, Freedman was a major figure in Chicago’s medical community, leading the Department of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital and the Chicago Medical School (now part of Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science) throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

A native of the United Kingdom, Freedman swiftly rose up the ranks of the British medical profession, succeeding on his first attempt on the examination to join the Royal College of Physicians, and subsequently obtaining the highest physician appointment in the National Health Service, consultant in internal medicine, at the earliest age possible — 34. As a medical resident, he was a protege of Basil Mackenzie, the 2nd Baron Amulree, who was an early advocate of geriatric medicine in the UK. Lord Amulree took a fatherly interest in Freedman, treating him to lunch at the House of Lords, an experience that left a lasting impression on the young Freedman. 

Freedman served as an officer in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He was assigned as a senior medical specialist to the British Medical Hospital in Berlin. It was in Berlin, as Freedman recalled years later, that he was “whisked away (cloak-and-dagger style) in dead of night to see a sick patient in Spandau, the prison to which the German war criminals were sent after the Nuremberg trials.” The patient was Konstantin Von Neurath, a German diplomat who had served as foreign minister early in Hitler’s regime.  Von Neurath fell ill at a time when the Russian authorities had control over Spandau under a rotating system devised by the victorious allied powers; however, a Russian physician could not be found.  Accordingly, the British – who had the next rotation – were called upon to find a physician.

Freedman later recalled the episode in a private memoir: “I was escorted through various shuttered doors, with military guards at each, and was finally shown into Von Neurath’s cell, escorted by a number of senior military personnel, British, French, and American. His cell was bare in the extreme and he lay in bed. He was bright, charming, and spoke impeccable English. I elicited his history, examined him and concluded that he probably had had a heart attack. The interesting thing was that whatever my feelings were about Germans, and especially the high-profile leaders of the Nazi regime, when face to face with Von Neurath, he just became another patient.”

Freedman first came to the United State in the late 1950s as a recipient of Britain’s prestigious Bilton Pollard Fellowship. He spent over a year conducting research at the University of Illinois before returning to the UK to take up a senior post at St. George’s Hospital in London. Just three years later, however, Freedman was persuaded to return to the United States to become the chief of internal medicine at the Chicago Medical School. He was later appointed chairman of the Department of Internal Medicine at Chicago’s Mount Sinai Hospital.

In 1979, Freedman left Mount Sinai and became a professor at Rush Presbyterian University and Medical Center. There, Freedman focused his attention on geriatric medicine — a subject of interest since his time with Lord Amulree — as a senior attending physician at the Johnston R. Bowman Health Center for the Elderly. Freedman was a founding member of the Geriatric Assessment and Planning Service, a groundbreaking program for addressing the needs of the elderly through a coordinated effort of physicians, social workers, psychiatrists and other experts. Freedman also maintained a private medical practice mainly catering to geriatric patients. 

Freedman made important contributions to medical scholarship, particularly in the field of renal medicine. He authored or contributed to over 50 research papers, articles and medical textbooks. He was elected a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and the American College of Physicians.

Freedman was born in 1926 in London’s East End, then a magnet for Eastern European Jewish immigrants. His father had fled pogroms in Lithuania, making his way to London, where he became a street trader. Living in a cold water flat with his three siblings, Freedman struggled to realize his academic ambitions in a culture in which many children were discouraged from seeking higher education. “Ever since an early age,” he would later recall, “I was obsessed with my need for an education — I did not know how or why, but I knew I wanted an education.” 

Apart from work and family, classical music was a passion and source of solace for Freedman, who had studied violin as a boy.

During his medical residency, Freedman met his future wife, Jean Cunningham. They were married after a brief courtship and remained married for 66 years until his death. In addition to her, Freedman is survived by his five children, 12 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.