Levine, Lena (1903–1965)

views updated

Levine, Lena (1903–1965)

American gynecologist and psychiatrist who was a pioneer in the field of marriage counseling and an activist in the birth-control movement. Born Lena Levine in Brooklyn, New York, on May 17, 1903; died in New York City on January 9, 1965; youngest of seven children of Morris H. Levine (a clothing manufacturer) and Sophie Levine; attended Girls High School in Brooklyn; graduated from Hunter College, A.B., 1923; University and Bellevue Hospital Medical College, M.D., 1927; married Louis Ferber (a physician), in 1929 (died 1943); children: Ellen Louise Ferber (b. 1939); Michael Allen Ferber (b. 1942).

Selected writings:

The Doctor Talks with the Bride (1936, 2nd ed., 1938); (with Beka Doherty) The Menopause (1952); (with Abraham Stone) The Premarital Consultation (1956); The Modern Book of Marriage: A Practical Guide to Marital Happiness (1957); (with David Loth) The Frigid Wife: Her Way to Sexual Fulfillment (1962); The Emotional Sex: Why Women Are the Way They Are Today (1964).

Born on May 17, 1903, in Brooklyn, New York, Lena Levine was the youngest child of Sophie Levine and clothing manufacturer Morris H. Levine. In addition to Lena, the Levines, who had emigrated from the Vilno area of Russian Lithuania in the 1890s, had three other daughters and three sons. The family lived in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn and enjoyed a more financially comfortable lifestyle than most of their poor Jewish neighbors.

After graduating from Girls High School in Brooklyn, Levine commuted to Hunter College in Manhattan, obtaining an A.B. degree in 1923. She then pursued a medical degree at University and Bellevue Hospital Medical College, also located in Manhattan, receiving her M.D. degree in 1927. Two years later, she married fellow medical student Louis Ferber, keeping her maiden name, and served a residency with him at Brooklyn Jewish Hospital. When her residency was completed, Levine went into private practice as a gynecologist and obstetrician; her husband, with whom she shared an office in Brooklyn, was a general practitioner. Their first child, Ellen Louise, was born in 1939, followed three years later by a son, Michael Allen. While still an infant, Michael came down with an attack of viral encephalitis that left him profoundly retarded. Although Levine attempted to care for her son at home, employing the services of a nurse and an African-American housekeeper, Pearl Harrison (who would remain with her for over 20 years), Michael was put in an institution after five years. Levine would visit him there for the rest of her life.

Only a year after the birth of Michael, Louis Ferber suffered a massive heart attack and died. The loss of her husband caused Levine to confine herself to gynecology, dropping her obstetrics practice to avoid leaving her children when she had to perform unexpected deliveries. In time, she became more and more intrigued by psychiatry, underwent psychoanalysis at the Columbia Psychoanalytic Institute, and became a Freudian. Still practicing as a gynecologist, Levine made use of Freudian theory in counseling patients on matters of psychological and reproductive health. Eventually, she launched a small psychiatric practice at 30 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, while continuing to maintain her gynecological practice in Brooklyn. After her daughter left for college, Levine moved to Greenwich Village in lower Manhattan, where she ran her medical practice from her home.

A strong proponent of birth control since the 1920s, Levine volunteered her services to the Birth Control Federation of America (later known as the Planned Parenthood Federation of America) in the 1930s. Arguably better known on the international birth-control scene than she was at home, she also served as the medical secretary of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, which was based in London. Although she continued her private practice, during the 1940s and 1950s she gradually became more involved with educational and organizational efforts in the areas of birth control and marriage counseling, all of which took an increasing amount of her time. With Abraham and Hannah Stone , she held marriage counseling sessions at the Community Church of New York. After the death of Hannah Stone in 1941, Levine teamed with Abraham Stone to pioneer a groupcounseling program on sex and contraception, the first such undertaking of its kind in the United States. Starting as early as the 1930s, Levine worked at the Margaret Sanger Research Bureau, one of the major birth-control clinics in New York City, and she later became its associate director. In that post, she served as an overseer of the clinic's medical services and conducted group therapy sessions for those with sexual problems. Levine also offered informational services for pregnant women, helping some to obtain illegal abortions (as with virtually all other birth-control advocates, she did not publicly support abortion for fear of jeopardizing the main goal of legalized contraception).

An enthusiastic supporter of liberal social thinking, Levine championed Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal in the 1930s and favored an even greater degree of socialism as a remedy for some of the country's ills. In her later years, she devoted much of her energy to writings on women's medical and psychological problems, covering such sensitive topics as frigidity, menopause, virginity, sexual relations in marriage, and contraception. She also lectured throughout the United States and abroad on these topics and others, including the sexuality of youth, planned parenthood, sex education, marriage, and the family. Her greatest contribution to the mental and physical health of all Americans may have been her willingness to discuss openly subjects that had been largely considered taboo. She believed that marriage and family could only be strengthened by attacking some of the myths surrounding such matters as sexual arousal, technique, and the differences between the sexual needs of women and men. Lena Levine suffered a massive stroke and died on January 9, 1965, at the age of 61.


Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980.

Don Amerman , freelance writer, Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania

About this article

Levine, Lena (1903–1965)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article