Princeton’s oldest alumnus and five-time recipient of the Class of 1923 Cane, Joseph Schein ’37, celebrated birthday 106 on February 23 — and is still going strong.
Schein, who shares the 1915 birthday year with Princeton economist and Nobel laureate Sir W. Arthur Lewis, has retired from psychiatry practice, but not from offering lively conversation.
The centenarian’s latest project is learning the Russian alphabet, an extension of his fascination with languages, from receiving the Alden Prize as the best French language student in his Princeton class to arranging for a Princeton graduate student to try to teach one of his two sons (both Princeton alumni) Sanskrit.
“All my life I’ve been frustrated (about learning Russian), never had the time to do it… and Mr. Putin hasn’t called on me to help him,” Schein said jokingly. “I can understand some of it because of the connection to Greek. But basically, I hope to be able to at least be able to read it and then hope to understand it.”
Continued learning and voracious reading on subjects like physics, even with some sight difficulties, keep him going, he said. When asked how he’s managed through the pandemic year, he answered: “I keep on doing the same thing I’ve always been doing.”
His birthday fete with cake and ginger ale included a visit from Kate Bellin ’02, who presented flowers and greetings from Princeton’s Alumni Council (socially distant, of course, and both Schein and Bellin have received COVID-19 vaccinations) and a balloon bouquet from Judith Scheide, widow of William Scheide ’36. He was also celebrated on the @Princeton social media Facebook, Instagram and Twitter channels with many Princetonians adding to the birthday well-wishes. These were just a few of the celebrations with family and friends that Schein enjoyed.
“I can't quite believe it,” Schein said in a Zoom interview. “I love that I hear all these wonderful things about me, which are not possibly entirely true. . .It’s unexpected. And it’s given me a great kick.”
According to Princetoniana expert Greg Lange ’70, writing in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, Schein, son of Russian immigrants, was an excellent debater and athlete — captain of the state-champion fencing team from Barringer High in Newark, New Jersey. He entered the University as one of 11 Jewish students in the Class of ’37, lettered in fencing, won honors with his thesis on Baudelaire in Modern Languages, and was active in the pre-med society. Schein also organized and led some of the earliest Jewish services on campus, which often included Albert Einstein.
After Princeton, he earned his medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania and began a 70-year career in medicine, beginning in pathology. He later transitioned to psychiatry and trained with one of Sigmund Freud’s most trusted colleagues. In 1943 he began an affiliation at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City and in 2013, the Joseph Schein, MD Endowed Fellowship in Experimental/Molecular Pathology was established to honor Schein and his long-standing belief in the value of pathology and its impact on medical practice, patient care and the advancement of medicine.
Schein first marched with the Class of 1923 Cane in 2016, at a sprightly 101 years old. Two years later, he led the P-rade when the 25th Reunion Class of 1993 yielded its place at the head of the P-rade to the Old Guard. In 2020, President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 symbolically handed Schein the silver-topped cane over Zoom in the first virtual P-rade.
With Princeton memorabilia as well as memories to uplift him, Schein connected his attachment to the University this way: “Princeton was not just for me a place to go to on the way to something else. It’s like the Russian soul. When they get an attachment, there’s nothing that gets in the way. It isn’t a scientific thing, it’s a feeling: ‘Mother Russia.’ Whatever goes on between a human being and his mother is the source of everything. And so I feel that way about my alma mater.”
Birthday Greetings from the Alumni Association
Kate Bellin ’02 delivers flowers to Joe Schein ’37 on his 106th birthday on behalf of the Princeton University Alumni Association. (The visit was socially distant and both Schein and Bellin have received COVID-19 vaccinations.)