How the 1960s affected the School of Medicine

The Vietnam War and the civil rights movement led students to question the School of Medicine’s curriculum and policies.

The Yale School of Medicine was not immune to the student protests that gripped the country in the 1960s and early 1970s. Opposition to the Vietnam War and increasing criticism of social injustice led to questioning of the medical school’s curriculum and administrative policies, culminating in a student strike in the spring of 1970.

In September 1968, the school had yielded to students’ desire for more flexibility and compressed the time allotted to preclinical and clinical instruction, leaving the fourth year open for electives. The thesis, required for the Yale medical degree since 1839, seemed archaic to students eager to shift the emphasis in their education from research to healing and activism, but the administration held firm and maintained the requirement. Students welcomed the introduction that year of a six-week clinical rotation during the summer after the first year. Free to choose their own summer programs, many students ventured into urban community health centers or American Indian reservations. 

Yale medical students also organized independently to respond to the social challenges of their profession. The Student Health Project was founded at Yale in 1969 to enact reforms in medical education and broaden the role of medicine to encompass individual community service projects.

New Haven became a center of nationwide attention in May 1970 when demonstrators protested the upcoming trial in the city of Black Panther leader Bobby Seale on charges that he had been involved in the murder of a Panther suspected of being an FBI informant. The Panthers were believed by many to be targets of oppression by law enforcement, and sympathizers considered the case against Seale weak.

Medical students had expressed support for the Panthers in the fall of 1969 but did not immediately endorse a call for a university-wide strike. Undergraduates voted to strike in April 1970, and an estimated 75 percent of Yale College classes were canceled.

University President Kingman Brewster’s statement of sympathy for the protestors’ views at a faculty meeting on April 23, 1970, had a calming effect on the student body. The main rally on the New Haven Green on May 1 attracted an estimated 15,000 persons—far fewer than expected—and there were no significant violent incidents despite incendiary speeches by Yippie leaders Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin.

During the two days of protests, some faculty and students from the School of Medicine, including members of the Medical Committee for Human Rights, staffed impromptu People’s First Aid Stations in Yale’s residential colleges to treat the effects of tear gas or other injuries, which were rare and mostly minor.

Medical students voted to join the university-wide strike on May 6, 1970, following the U.S. invasion of Cambodia on April 29 and the shooting of four students by Ohio National Guardsmen at Kent State University on May 4. Medical students agreed to suspend classes and other scheduled activities, while also arranging to meet with faculty during the strike to ensure maintenance of professional standards and such obligations as patient care. 

The same spirit of compromise marked such other instances of student activism following May Day 1970 as the deliberations concerning academic governance. Students had in preceding years gained membership on the faculty Curriculum Committee as well as on the Student-Faculty Hospital Committee and a board to recruit underrepresented minorities to the student body. In 1970 the students attempted to gain an equal voice in deciding admissions, promotions, and graduation standards. The Committee on Governance, a faculty body, resisted this effort while creating a Medical School Council composed of students and faculty, “to provide an influential forum for discussion of significant School-wide issues.” After its founding in 1970, the Council continued to meet for more than 30 years, evolving gradually into a speakers’ forum for the exchange of information about current events within the school and across the medical profession.

This article has been adapted from Medicine at Yale: The First 200 Years, a book celebrating the bicentennial of the Yale School of Medicine.

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