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Abraham Flexner

Abraham Flexner was a member of the General Education Board (GEB) and a prominent proponent of educational reform in the United States.

Flexner was born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1866 and earned a B.A. in Classics at Johns Hopkins University in 1886. After graduating he returned home to Louisville where, in 1891, he founded and taught at his own private school. Flexner eventually sold this school, allowing him to pursue an advanced degree at Harvard and undertake additional studies in Europe. 

In 1908, while studying in Germany, Flexner wrote a critique of U.S. education that caught the attention of Henry Pritchett, who was then President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Pritchett was impressed with the ideas presented in the report and commissioned Flexner to examine the state of North American medical education. His research included visits to and assessments of 155 North American medical schools and resulted in the 1910 publication of the Carnegie Foundation’s Report No. 4, or Medical Education in the United States and Canada, which decried the poor state of medical education across North America. Among Flexner’s chief concerns were the lack of real scientific training and an entrenched system of education for profit, which resulted in a large number of accredited but unskilled doctors.  

Based on the success of his Carnegie report, Flexner was recruited by the GEB in 1912. He was quickly promoted to Secretary of the Board, and under his leadership the GEB joined with the new Rockefeller Foundation (RF) in a major program to reform medical education. He remained a committed member of the GEB until his retirement in 1927.

Although Flexner focused a great deal of his professional career on medical education, he neither trained nor practiced as a physician. His primary interest lay in general education, particularly in theories of learning and in the proper role of universities in society. He criticized universities in which profits trumped education, and he believed strongly that universities should support the pursuit of knowledge rather than focus on specific vocational training.

After Flexner retired from the GEB, he became the founder and first director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Under his leadership, the Institute for Advanced Study became a space for scholars to focus their energies entirely on learning and the pure pursuit of knowledge. A notable member of the Institute was Albert Einstein, who was recruited in 1930 by Flexner himself.

Abraham Flexner retired from the Institute for Advanced Study in 1939. He died twenty years later at the age of 92. The papers of Abraham Flexner are held at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C.