(Image source - Duke Medical Center Library and Archives)
Walter Kempner was born in 1903 in Germany. He joined Duke in 1934 as a member of the Department of Medicine. Kempner was interested in the effect of diet on various diseases including hypertension and diabetes. Observing that those diseases were relatively rare where rice was a staple food, Kempner came up with a formula of rice, fruit, juices and vitamins. Kempner tracked the effectiveness of the Rice Diet through eye-ground tests. These scans of the vessels of the retina revealed overall health, including hypertension. Since the 1930s, Kempner and his associates have employed the Rice Diet to treat more than 18,000 patients from all around the world.
Walter Kempner retired from Duke University in 1974 and from the Rice Diet program in 1994. He died in 1997 at the age of 93. Some of his colleagues continue to sustain the Kempner Foundation.
In addition to his professional work, Kempner was at the core of a group of German refugees who fled Nazi persecution and created a vibrant emigre community centered in the Watts-Hillandale neighborhood. The text below is reprinted from an article by Tom Miller entitled "Community Founded by Refugees," first run in the December 2018 edition of the neighborhood newsletter, Parade.
Our neighbor Dr. Walter Kempner was a remarkable and brilliant man. Nearly everyone knows about his famous rice diet program at Duke. Few people, however, know the story of his coming to Durham and the community he built here in Watts-Hillandale.
Kempner was born into a wealthy and well-connected Jewish family in Berlin in 1903. His was a life of comfort and privilege. He was educated at the best schools and became a gifted physician and medical researcher. He was also interested in the arts, politics, and philosophy. He surrounded himself with like-minded liberal scientists and thinkers. When Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933, Kempner’s world quickly came apart. Barred from employment by Hitler’s anti-Jewish laws, Kempner sought to escape to the United States. The prospect of gaining entry, however, was not encouraging. Thousands of Jewish refugees were leaving Germany and this country had very strict limits on immigration. Fortunately for Kempner, just as the crisis in Germany was becoming ever more dire, Duke University, made rich by the Duke Endowment, was expanding. Duke’s medical school was searching for the best minds for its growing faculty. In 1934, Duke offered Kempner a two-year appointment. He accepted.
When he arrived in Durham, Kempner had only a little money that his department chair, Dr. Hanes, had smuggled out of Germany for him. Kempner soon made such an impression on the university that his appointment was renewed and ultimately became permanent. In 1939, he developed his famous rice diet at Duke as a treatment for cardiovascular disease.
Almost immediately upon his arrival in Durham, Dr. Kempner set about helping other refugees from the Nazi regime. The first of these was Dr. Clotilde Schlayer in 1935. Another was a friend, Edit Glaser. He encouraged both to settle in Durham. In the early years, Kempner, Schlayer, and Glaser lived in the Washington Duke Hotel downtown. In 1938, however, Glaser bought a little house at 2110 Wilson St. The house became the refugees’ social center. In the same year, Kempner brought Fides Ruestow to Durham and found her a post at Duke. Ruestow moved in with Ms. Glaser on Wilson Street. After World War II, she bought a house of her own on Stroller Avenue with a deep lot on which she grew roses. In 1941, Dr. Kempner bought the new house at 1505 Virginia Ave. and Dr. Schlayer bought the house next door at 1503. Kempner had resisted moving from the hotel because he hoped the situation in Germany would improve. When war broke out it became obvious that America would be his home.
After the war, with Germany in ruins, Dr. Kempner continued to use his growing influence at Duke to bring refugees to Durham. In 1946, Dr. and Mrs. Ernst Peschel arrived. They both worked for Kempner in his laboratory. Initially they lived with Dr. Schlayer on Virginia Avenue. Dr. Peschel would establish the first kidney dialysis unit at Duke. The Peschels soon built their own pre-fab ranch style house at 2306 Pershing St. on a lot purchased by Dr. Kempner. It was modified by later owners and had to be demolished recently after suffering severe damage from a falling tree. In 1947, Mercedes Gaffron arrived in Durham with substantial help from Dr. Kempner. She was a noted psychologist at Duke and later became a counselor in Dr. Kempner’s rice diet program. Professor Gaffron also lived with Dr. Schlayer before buying her own house at 1612 Maryland Ave. In 1949, Dr. Christa von Roebel arrived. She moved into another pre-fab house at 2303 Pershing Ave. She joined Duke’s faculty in bacteriology and gynecology.
Dr. Kempner helped all of these gifted people escape the horror of Nazi Germany and the destruction of their homeland. He found them positions at Duke, helped them financially, provided them with homes, and sometimes even helped fund their salaries from his own income. Together they created their own community near the intersection of Pershing Street and Virginia Avenue where they could support each other in a new and strange country and share their European language and culture. They had lost a great deal, but here they built new lives. They called their little settlement “Neu Dahlem” after the Berlin suburb where, before the war, they had lived, met, and worked. The community continued to grow. In the mid-1960s, Barbara and Hans Stefan Schultz came to Durham and moved into the house at 1500 Alabama Ave. Dr. Kempner had helped the Schultzes escape to America in 1937. They found work in colleges and universities outside North Carolina and moved to Durham only later. The house at 1500 Alabama was later the home of Dr. Barbara Newborg, the youngest member of the community. Unlike the others, she was not a European émigré. She met Dr. Kempner while studying to become a doctor. She joined Dr. Kempner’s staff in 1952 and worked with him for 40 years. It is from her book, Walter Kempner and the Rice Diet, that information for this article is drawn.
The tight-knit little community of refugees tucked in the center of Watts-Hillandale continued for nearly 70 years. Dr. Kempner’s rice diet became famous not only for combating disease but for weight loss. He treated celebrities and became one himself. Dr. Kempner died in 1997, brilliant, generous, and active to the end. In the years that followed, other members of his circle followed him. Dr. Newborg was the last; she passed away in 2016.