Dr. Joseph Hittelman, a Los Angeles physician and advocate for health care for the poor, died July 17 at 100 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles following a heart attack.
Hittelman was born in Rochester, N.Y., on Dec. 25, 1910, to Russian Jews, moved to Los Angeles at the age of 10 and grew up in Boyle Heights. He attended UCLA, earned a bachelor of science degree from UC Berkeley and in 1936 earned a medical degree from UC San Francisco. He returned to Los Angeles after medical school and raised his family in Boyle Heights.
He was stationed stateside and in the Philippines during World War II with the U.S. Army Medical Corps, and was discharged as a captain in 1945.
A family doctor in the 1950s, he advocated for health care reforms for the poor during the McCarthy era, which brought him to the attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). In October 1952, Hittelman was one of 11 Los Angeles physicians interrogated by HUAC following a colleague’s allegations that the group was part of a Communist Party medical unit.
The doctors refused to answer on the basis that questions about their politics violated their constitutional rights. Hittelman was also called before the Burns Committee, also known as the state Senate Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities. He wasn’t prosecuted but was blacklisted for several years and was barred from the staff of Cedars of Lebanon Hospital (which later merged with Mount Sinai Hospital to form Cedars-Sinai).
According to the Los Angeles Times, Hittelman believed that it was the favoring of programs for the poor that brought him and his colleagues under the scrutiny of the Red hunters. He reflected on that era in a 1999 article in the Times. “It all goes back to seeing the big gaps in health care delivery. We (tried) to liberalize the medical profession. … We got a group together to back Roosevelt, and that was a Red Activity.”
Following being barred from Cedars, Hittelman practiced at smaller hospitals and saw patients in a private practice. He volunteered at the Venice Family Clinic, and he was granted privileges at Cedars-Sinai before retiring in 1994.
At Hittelman’s request, his body was donated to the school of medicine at UCLA.
He is survived by his wife Helen; sons Karl, Paul and Jeff; six grandchildren; five great-grandchildren; sister Celia Frimkess; and brother Nathan.