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The legacy of Milton Winternitz

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2011 - Autumn


A new book honors the achievements of the dean who led the medical school at a crucial time.

The man who laid the foundation of the modern School of Medicine has been largely forgotten, says Howard Spiro, M.D., professor emeritus of internal medicine (digestive diseases). And yet, as the dean of the medical school from 1920 to 1935, Milton C. Winternitz, M.D., created a legacy that touches every student and faculty member who walks along Cedar Street. He established the Yale system of medical education; introduced salaries for full-time faculty; was one of the founding fathers of clinical medicine at Yale; and built the hub of the campus, including the iconic Sterling Hall of Medicine.

Spiro, founding director of the Program for Humanities in Medicine, and co-author Priscilla Waters Norton seek to refresh historical memory with their new book, Dean Winternitz: Yale Medical School’s Passionate Humanist.

The book describes how the dean employed “superhuman energy” to introduce psychiatry at Yale, to strengthen ties with New Haven Hospital, and to grant relative autonomy to students who were “here to learn rather than to be taught.” He established the short-lived Institute of Human Relations to advance “social medicine,” a progressive interdisciplinary approach that drew on law and sociology as well as medicine, and took into account the socioeconomic, psychological, and spiritual aspects of illness.

The authors also describe the fallout from the dean’s caustic personality, including his forced resignation from the deanship in 1935.

A decade after the 1910 Flexner Report revealed shortcomings in medical education nationwide, [Winternitz] “saved the medical school from becoming a second- or third-rate place.”

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