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Iconoclast: Abraham Flexner and a Life in Learning by Thomas Neville Bonner (155,000 words, 29 illustrations): this eBook edition is by arrangement with Johns Hopkins University Press

Abraham Flexner (1866-1959), raised in Louisville, Kentucky in a family of poor Jewish immigrants from Germany, attended the Johns Hopkins University in the first decade of its existence. After graduating in 1886, he founded, four years before John Dewey’s Chicago “laboratory school,” a progressive experimental school in Louisville that won the attention of Harvard President Charles W. Eliot. After a successful nineteen years as teacher and principal, he turned his attention to medical education on behalf of the Carnegie Foundation. His 1910 survey — known as the Flexner Report — stimulated much-needed, radical changes in American medical schools. With its emphasis on full-time clinical teaching, it remains the most widely cited document on how doctors best learn their profession.

Flexner’s subsequent projects — a book on medical education in Europe and a comparative study of medical education in Europe and America — remain unsurpassed in range and insight. For fifteen years a senior officer in the Rockefeller-supported General Education Board in New York City, he helped distribute grants — more than 6 billion in today’s dollars — for education in medicine and other subjects and started the Lincoln School in 1917. His devastating critique of American higher education (“Intellectual inquiry, not job training, [is] the purpose of the university.”) raised important questions, upsetting many educators. In 1930, Flexner created and led the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, convincing Albert Einstein to accept the first appointment at the new institute.

“Iconoclast is a thoughtful, wonderfully crafted, solidly researched account of an uncommon life that far exceeds Abraham Flexner’s association with reform in medical education... Bonner’s labors have produced a critical, insightful portrait of Flexner as a brilliant, tireless, extraordinarily persuasive visionary. In addition to detailed portraits of the man ‘at the vortex of swiftly moving scientific, educational, and philanthropic currents’ in higher education in the United States, Bonner also provides an account of Flexner’s personal life... Iconoclast offers a learned portrait of the distance traveled in medical education during the past 100 years, along with consideration of the curricular and pedagogical problems that persist.” — Delese Wear,
New England Journal of Medicine

“Bonner’s great achievement in this scholarly and captivating book is to model Flexner’s critical appraisal skills in writing about him. Even Flexner himself lacked critical awareness in his autobiography... Bonner, on the other hand, offers a gentle and thoughtful appraisal. The elements that contribute to Flexner’s greatness — perseverance, vision, clear thinking, and fair mindedness — are all balanced with his weaknesses — an obstinate unwillingness to retract and clouded political insight... Bonner dissects Flexner’s contribution with meticulous scholarship, avoiding all cheap adulation or debunking. This is an outstanding book.” — Ed Peile,
British Medical Journal

“The book offers historical insights about philanthropy, educational reform, and institutional governance and decision making... In Bonner’s capable hands, Flexner emerges an interesting figure whose successes are combined with contradictions and shortcomings.” — Amy E. Wells,

“An outstanding and thorough study of this remarkable American educator who, more than anyone before or since, defined what a medical school should be, left indelible marks on public education, and founded one of the most innovative centers of advanced study in the world. Bonner adroitly portrays in this masterful biography what America and the world owes to Flexner for his vision, creativity, tenacity, and advocacy of progressive education.” — John S. Haller, Jr.,
Journal of American History

“Few nonphysicians have had as profound and long-lasting an effect on modern American medicine as Abraham Flexner... An excellent book about a highly significant and neglected figure.” — Janet A. Tighe, Ph.D.,
JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association)

“Not only fills a major void but also provides an important evaluation of an individual whose contributions to education and a variety of social problems have generally been overlooked... Bonner’s biography restores Flexner to the position of importance that he merits... This biography is a major addition to American historiography.” — Gerald N. Grob,
Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences

“Excellent... Deeply researched, carefully presented... This thorough, creative biography adjusts our view of this powerful man so engaged in an astounding array of twentieth-century educational developments.” — Linda Eisenmann,

“Thanks to Thomas Bonner’s Iconoclast, we finally have the biography Flexner deserves and readers seek.” — John R. Thelin,
Journal of Higher Education

“If you want to know why more than half of the Nobel Prizes in medicine and science since 1945 have gone to Americans, you must read Thomas Bonner’s book. Abraham Flexner was the architect of a revolution in medical education in the United States that explains how this country became the medical mecca of the world. Bonner brings Flexner’s remarkable story to life with clarity, sympathy, and verve.” —
James H. Jones, author of Bad Blood and Alfred C. Kinsey: A Public/Private Life

“At last we have a life of one of the most powerful shapers of medicine, science, and higher education. This beautifully crafted life of Flexner will rescue a giant of his times from fragmentation and, sometimes, misunderstanding. Bonner has written not only a very important book but a deeply thoughtful and searching interrogation of recurrent social and moral problems that take on life and meaning in a concrete, historical setting.” —
John C. Burnham, Ohio State University

“Abraham Flexner was one of the great innovators in education of the twentieth-century. Thomas N. Bonner, a distinguished historian as well as an educator/manager, is the biographer Flexner deserves.” — Daniel M. Fox, President, Milbank Memorial Fund,
Perspectives in Biology and Medicine

“This biography is a solid, well-researched study of a towering figure in American biomedical research.” — Darwin Stapleton,
Rockefeller Archive Center

“This is a brilliant, beautifully crafted, and much needed biography of one of the legendary figures in American medicine and higher education. Once again Thomas Bonner has shown that he is one of the great medical historians of our time.” —
Kenneth M. Ludmerer, Washington University

“Though [Abraham] Flexner wrote an autobiography, until now we have had no comprehensive biography. Fortunately, Thomas Bonner has filled that gap with Iconoclast. As a former university president with significant experience working with donors, Bonner is well qualified to understand his subject.” — Martin Morse Wooster,

“As Thomas Bonner relates in his excellent biography, [Abraham] Flexner initiated several... significant developments in American secondary and higher education over some three-quarters of a century.“ — David Mitch, History of Education Quarterly
“Iconoclast captures the boldness as well as the sweeping impact of Flexner’s work in the field of American education in the first half of the twentieth century.“ — Adam R. Nelson,
Paedagogica Historica