In 1924 a young Ukrainian doctor arrived in the USA. His name was Leo Kanner, and in some quarters his name was to become legendary.
Kanner had been born in 1894 into an orthodox Jewish family living near the Ukrainian town of Brody in the Galician region of what was then the Austro-Hungarian empire. 1894 wasn’t a good time to be living in Brody, known then as the ‘Galician Jerusalem’. The assassination of Russian Tsar Alexander II in 1881 triggered a wave of anti-Jewish riots across Russia, the Jews being widely seen as responsible for the assassination despite only one of the assassins being Jewish by birth and the others atheist revolutionaries. The loss of Jewish life during the pogroms of 1881-1884 was significantly less than in the slaughter that took place between 1903 and 1906, but nonetheless from 1881 onwards Brody found itself overwhelmed by waves of Jewish refugees traveling West. Despite this influx, the Jewish proportion of the population of Brody had fallen from 90% in 1869 to 67% by 1910. The town was partially destroyed during the Polish-Soviet war in 1920 and then became an important military base occupied by the Red Army during WWII. After German occupation in 1941, the Jewish population, by then numbering 9,000, was exterminated.
Leo Kanner had managed to stay one jump ahead of catastrophe; he began studying medicine at the University of Berlin in 1913 and finally qualified as a doctor in 1921, his training being interrupted by military service during the First World War. He arrived in the USA in the same year that the Johnson-Reed Act reduced national immigration quotas. Between 1926 and 1929 around 20% of the Galician Jewish population migrated to the US, arriving with an estimated average of $22 each.
Kanner made the most of his new opportunity. After a period at the State Hospital in Yankton County, South Dakota, in 1930 he was appointed to a post at the Johns Hopkins University Hospital, Baltimore, which is where his pioneering work began.