The fires of World War I and the revolutions it sparked were still burning across Europe when a group of leaders at Yale School of Medicine gathered one December day in 1920. Just two months after Soviet forces were turned back from Warsaw, the School of Medicine’s faculty, including Dean Milton C. Winternitz, MD, formed the Beaumont Medical Club. The club was named for William Beaumont (1785–1853), a Connecticut physician who served as a surgeon in the U.S. Army during the War of 1812 and later performed a landmark experiment in the physiology of human digestion.
Originally conceived as a bulwark against excessive standardization and narrow specialization—an intellectual haven for the inquisitive to dine and present their thoughts on subjects outside the classroom or contemporary debate forums—the Beaumont Club attracted some of the best minds of the age. Even Harvey Cushing, MD, was wait-listed for membership, and ultimately admitted only when a seat opened for him.
“The 19th century had witnessed the birth of a new type of scientific medicine—rooted in the laboratory, focused on mechanistic reductionism above all else,” said John Warner, PhD, the Avalon Professor in the History of Medicine and professor of American studies and of history, and chair of the department of history of medicine. “Many scientists and doctors worried that the human aspect of medicine was in danger of being lost.”
This privileging of the process over the person alarmed many at the beginning of the 20th century, but also inspired many artistic and political movements as well, including Futurism and Italian Fascism. The members of the Beaumont Medical Club intended to use history as an intellectual and cultural bulwark against similar dehumanizing tendencies in science—a wall intended to protect guiding ideals like humanism.
Of course, the club was exclusionary in its early days. At its founding, the Beaumont Club reserved membership to well-to-do white men—especially senior department heads who had proved their value to the institutions affiliated with Yale School of Medicine. Many voices were excluded from the club in the 1920s—most notably those of women, people of color, and most Jewish and Roman Catholic physicians. “The club’s founders were very much a product of the elite medical culture of their time,” said Warner. “Their chief accomplishment with Beaumont was establishing a mechanism by which people could come together and engage in humanistic discussion about science and medicine in a setting less intimate than home, but less formal than a lecture hall.”
The Beaumont Medical Club of 2020 is vastly changed from that patriarchal relic. Membership is no longer restricted to department and school leadership—it draws in faculty members based on their interests, conversation, and intellectual curiosity, rather than their level of responsibility. Moreover, students are now permitted to attend as guests.
“We’re interested in expanding the club’s composition to include more diverse voices,” said Susan Wheeler, secretary/treasurer of the Beaumont Medical Club and curator, prints and drawings and historical medical posters, Cushing/Whitney Medical Library. “The more experience on which we can draw, the fuller the experience of Beaumont is for everyone.”
While the composition of the club has changed, the structure of its program has not. Meeting six times per year, the Beaumont Club holds talks from faculty who are visiting Yale as well as those who are themselves YSM faculty. Each memorable evening begins with tea, then progresses to a presentation followed by a formal dinner held in the Beaumont Room of Sterling Hall of Medicine.
“Beaumont fulfills an important space in the life of Yale School of Medicine,” said Warner. “It says a lot about the type of medical school that Yale is, that it would welcome a humanistic, cross-disciplinary salon of this sort, and that there are people who continue to make it a priority.”