Originally published by Julia Bachrach on February 3, 2020, at jbachrach.com.
Sometimes when I’m researching a building or a neighborhood, I stumble upon an intriguing historical figure. A fairly recent example is my discovery of Dr. Max Thorek. I had no idea who Thorek was until I was doing some research on two residential buildings in Lakeview. That quest sent me onto an odyssey to learn more about him. And now I feel compelled to share my findings with you! A talented doctor, scientist, musician, artist, and author, as well as the founder of the International College of Surgeons, Max Thorek was a remarkable Chicagoan.
I think if you’d ask most Chicagoans today if they have ever heard of Max Thorek, they would say no, but they might assume that he was affiliated with Thorek Hospital at 850 W. Irving Park Road. Despite his current obscurity, a search of Max Thorek’s name in historical articles on Newspapers.com yields over 3,000 matches. During his lifetime, Dr. Thorek was famous throughout the nation for experimental medical treatments and successful surgeries on noteworthy patients, for founding important organizations, and for his work as an amateur photographer.
Born to a Hungarian Jewish family in a small village in the Tatra Mountains, Max Thorek (1880-1960) was the son of two doctors. (His father, Isaac, practiced general medicine and his mother, Sarah, was a mid-wife who had a degree in obstetrics.) In the late 1890s, Max was a student in Budapest when Jews throughout the area were being targeted by violent mobs. In his autobiography, A Surgeon’s World, Thorek recalled: “A mania to hurt and maim and kill had seized the town. People we knew as kindly, harmless folk were suddenly transformed to attack with murderous frenzy their neighbors, their fellow townsmen, even their friends.” After his younger brother was killed in such a pogrom, Max and his parents decided to flee to America. They immigrated to Chicago because they had a relative here. The Thoreks settled on the city’s West Side.
Max had always planned on becoming a doctor, but the Thoreks could not afford to send him to college in Chicago. He was a talented violinist, so Max soon found work playing with a local “gypsy orchestra.” When he heard that the University of Chicago provided financial aid to band members, he went and asked if there were any opportunities for a violinist. He was promptly informed that the brass band had little use for a violinist, but that it was in desperate need of a snare drum player. Although Max had no experience as a percussionist, he bluffed his way through the interview. Right after the scholarship interview, Max went to a pawnshop, purchased a snare drum, and had a member of his orchestra teach him how to play it. Fortunately, he had mastered the instrument by later that summer, when it was time to start practicing with the University Band.
After completing his degree at the University of Chicago, Max went on to study at Rush Medical College. He received his medical degree in 1904, and began an internship in obstetrics. Max then became an associate in gynecology at West Side Hospital and a consulting staff member at Cook County Hospital. Before long, he would switch his specialty to surgery. Fannie Unger, Max’s childhood sweetheart, emigrated to join him. (Max called her ‘Fim.’) The couple was married in Chicago in 1905, and the following year, Fim gave birth to a son, Philip Thorek. Max soon began working with Dr. Solomon Greenspahn, whom Thorek described as “one of the most capable and charitable physicians on the West Side.” The two founded the American Hospital at 2058 W. Monroe Street. Their goal was to serve patients on the basis of need and “not on their ability to pay.” The hospital quickly became overcrowded. Max, who had a passion for the theater, was concerned that when show people fell ill or had an accident while performing in Chicago, they “literally had nowhere to turn” for health care. So he and Greenspahn decided to build a new hospital specifically devoted to theatrical professionals.
During the early 20th century, while many West Siders were moving to the North Side, Thorek and Greenspahn decided to build their new hospital there. They found a site on Irving Park Road just west of Broadway Avenue. The American Theatrical Hospital Association formed to support the project, and when ground was broken in 1916, the Chicago Tribune announced that this would be “the only hospital for theatrical people in the world.”
After the hospital opened in 1917, advertisements in Billboard and other magazines explained that the facility was a charitable organization that provided medical treatment to actors, actresses, musicians, moving picture operators, circus and carnival performers, road show workers, and any others in the “amusement profession.” Dr. Thorek became close friends with many of the celebrities he treated. His son Philip (who later became a surgeon, professor of surgery at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, and Medical Director of Thorek Hospital) recalled sitting at “Uncle Harry” Houdini’s knee and learning magic tricks from the master illusionist. Along with Houdini, Thorek’s patients included the Marx Brothers, Al Jolson, Sarah Bernhardt, Mae West, and Buffalo Bill Cody.
When the new American Hospital was underway, the Thoreks decided to build a nearby six-flat to serve as an investment as well as their own home. They acquired property at 644-646 W. Sheridan Road and hired architect Roy Franklin France (1887-1972) to design a fine terra cotta-clad low-rise. Max, Fim, and Philip moved into the building soon after its 1916 completion. The Thoreks’ early tenants included an automobile salesman, the manager of an adding machine company, a woolen garment salesman, and their families. At this time, East Lakeview was largely undeveloped, and Lake Shore Drive only extended as far north as W. Sheridan Road. In his autobiography, Max Thorek described how he and Fim enjoyed walking along the “wild” and “pebbly shore” just east and north of their home. He described one particular day when Fim looked out and exclaimed, “They’ll be extending the Lake Shore Drive some day. It’s going to happen! And when it does, Dear, this is going to be valuable property— very valuable.” She soon surprised her husband by purchasing a tract of land along the unimproved lakefront.
By the mid-1920s, the Lincoln Park Commission had begun extending Lake Shore Drive further north and Fim’s prediction came true—their tract increased in value. The Thoreks decided to divide the deep lot into two buildable tracts. They erected a courtyard building on its west side at 3917 Frontier Avenue. (The building no longer exists.) Roy F. France, the architect of their six-flat, wanted to design and develop a luxury co-operative apartment building. He offered to buy the Thoreks’ eastern lot, but he didn’t have enough money to build the apartment tower he envisioned. The Thoreks provided France with a second mortgage for his project at 3920 N. Lake Shore Drive. In partial payment, he designed a duplexed-penthouse as the Thoreks’ new home, and deeded the beautiful 12-room, two-level apartment to them. In 1927, when construction on France’s project began, Tribune reporter Al Chase wrote about the 17-story French Gothic style building, which would be known as Lake Shore Towers. Chase specifically complimented the penthouse, suggesting that unlike many other apartment buildings which were unsightly at the top, the uppermost level of Lake Shore Towers would “be treated architecturally as part of the building.”
Classified advertisements for co-operative apartments in the Lake Shore Towers began to appear in the Chicago Tribune in early 1928. A display ad stated “management of Lake Shore Towers invites you to become one of a restricted group of families who are planning their future homes here.” There is no doubt that this “restriction” was referring to Jews. In fact, it described the Thorek’s penthouse as though it were available for purchase.
Indeed, the Lake Shore Towers co-op board would not allow the Thoreks to take possession of their penthouse because they were Jewish. In order to move into the unit that they owned, the Thoreks had to file a lawsuit against the 3920 Lake Shore Drive Building Corporation. On June 6, 1930, the Tribune reported that Chief Circuit Court Justice Thomas Taylor had issued an injunction against the building corporation. Max, Fannie, Philip, and his wife, Rose, were finally able to move into their elegant apartment.
By the 1930s, Dr. Max Thorek had become quite involved in research. He kept a laboratory on the roof of his hospital with such a wide variety of research animals that he called it his rooftop zoological garden. One of the most controversial studies with which he and his colleagues were involved was the attempt to transplant the testicles of animals onto aging men. Although that sounds quite odd today, Dr. Thorek was highly respected during his own time. He was often lauded for helping patients who couldn’t pay for his services. One case involved a Tennessee man who refused to press charges after his neighbor attacked him and cut off his nose. (The victim was worried that the neighbor’s four children would become destitute if their father went to jail.) The case was widely publicized after Dr. Thorek agreed to do the surgery at no charge, and American Airways offered to fly the man to Chicago for free.
In 1935, Thorek realized a longtime dream when he founded the International College of Surgeons. He later established the organization’s museum, which is still open today at 1524 N. Lake Shore Drive.
In addition to his skills as a doctor, Max Thorek was a talented and avid photographer. As he had done for surgeons, he also established an organization for photography enthusiasts. His Photographic Society of America continues today. He published a couple of books on photography, lectured on the topic, and frequently won prizes when he entered his prints in contests. Today, the Art Institute of Chicago has several of his photographs in its collections.
When Dr. Max Thorek died in 1960, his obituary ran in newspapers throughout the country. Afterwards, his widow, Fim, continued to live in the Lake Shore Towers for more than another decade. I hope the next time you pass 3920 N. Lake Shore Drive, you look up at the penthouse and think about its remarkable longtime residents.
Julia S. Bachrach is an award-winning author, historian, preservationist, and urban planner. She served as historian and planning supervisor to the Chicago Park District for more than two decades. Her books include The City in a Garden: A History of Chicago’s Parks and Inspired by Nature: The Garfield Park Conservatory and Chicago’s West Side. She contributed essays to AIA Guide to Chicago Architecture, Oxford Companion to the Garden, Midwestern Landscape Architecture, and Encyclopedia of Chicago.
Her appearances on television, documentary films, and radio programs include 10 Great Parks That Changed America (PBS), Chicago Tonight (WTTW), Biking the Boulevards with Geoffrey Baer (WTTW), and Jens Jensen: The Living Green (Viva Lundin Productions) and Curious City (WBEZ).
Julia Bachrach teaches seminars at cultural institutions such as the Newberry Library. She previously taught courses at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Illinois Institute of Technology. She received the 2015 Distinguished Service Award from the American Institute of Architecture-Chicago and the 2009 National Stewardship Excellence Award from the Cultural Landscape Foundation.
Read more at https://www.jbachrach.com/2022
2 thoughts on “Dr. Max Thorek: A Remarkable Chicagoan”
What an amazing story! Who knew! I drive by Thorek Hospital daily and now, due to your informative article, I have an entirely new respect and interest for Dr. Max Thorek. Excellent work!
I work at Thorek and had the pleasure of meeting Dr Phil Thorek.