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Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine celebrates its 90th anniversary

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2019 - Spring


As with so many of the traditions and legacies of the School of Medicine, the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine traces its origins to Dean Milton C. Winternitz, MD. In 1928 students and faculty approached the dean and asked him to revive the Yale Medical Journal, which had published its first issue, including the first account of a polio epidemic in the United States, in 1894.

The Yale Medical Journal was the first scientific journal to be published in Connecticut and it kept doctors in the Northeast abreast of clinical developments. But competing journals soon emerged, and new requirements of medical students denied them the time to devote to this extracurricular activity. The journal ceased publication in 1912.

Sixteen years later, with Winternitz’s enthusiastic support, the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine published its first issue, containing four articles. Initial content maintained its predecessor’s focus on clinical work, but soon added research articles as medical students began spending more time in the lab. With that, said Helen Beilinson, one of the journal’s two current editors-in-chief, “YJBM began its trajectory to be one of the most successful student-run publications to date.”

Beilinson, a graduate student who’s due to complete her doctorate in immunobiology next year, has been editor for the past two years and has spent the last several months preparing a celebration of the journal’s 90 years of continuing publication. A team that included Kate Woodford, the journal’s editorial coordinator, Lisa Ogawa-McLean, one of the journal’s editors, and Melissa Grafe, PhD, the John R. Bumstead Librarian for Medical History, worked on the celebration that included a colloquium with talks by two prominent Yale researchers and the unveiling of an exhibit in the rotunda of the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library.

At the colloquium, Jeffrey Bender, MD, Robert I. Levy Professor of Medicine (cardiology) and professor of immunobiology, reviewed the journal’s history since he became faculty advisor in 2006.

“At that time the journal was filled mostly with abstracts of medical student theses and original science not always of the highest quality,” he said. “I am really here to tell you what an astounding transformation the journal has gone through over the past 10 plus years, all due to amazing effort by the student editorial board, 100 percent to their credit.”

Since then, he said, the journal has published original science reviews and clinical case reports on a single topic in each issue. The publication of each issue is accompanied by a lecture on that topic by a member of the Yale faculty. A print edition was abandoned in 2003, and the journal now publishes only online. The journal’s editors also initiated a podcast series in 2016. The journal’s most popular article, How to Write Your First Research Paper, has been accessed more than 10,000 times on PubMed Central. These efforts by students, said Bender, have brought the journal national attention.

“I have been at national meetings where faculty from other institutions have come to me and said. ‘We noticed this journal at Yale. We never noticed it before. Has it just started?’ I say, ‘Yeah, about 90 years ago,’” Bender said. “The recent past editors and student editorial board deserve all the credit. They have been diligent, motivated, highly dedicated, and creative, and it’s really turned this journal into something of which they should be proud.”

The credit to the student editors notwithstanding, they’ve only held the editorial reins for about 20 years. Until 1999, the editor-in-chief was always a member of the Yale faculty. The first editor, the immunologist George H. Smith, MD, often reached into his own pocket to keep the journal afloat, as did some of his successors. Indeed, part of the history depicted in eight glass cases in the rotunda refers to the journal’s “dark times,” when its very existence was in peril. The issue usually involved questions of financial support, but faculty advisors also implored their colleagues to consider contributing original articles to the journal. In 1976, the journal’s editor, Alfred S. Evans, MD, was moved to write to a colleague at Johns Hopkins, which had a similar journal, with a request. “I wonder if you would be willing to share with me any of your secrets for survival,” Evans wrote.

The journal’s most recent crisis occurred in 2005, around the time Bender became faculty advisor. The previous advisor had left, as had the editorial coordinator, and continued funding was in doubt. Alumni who had served on the journal wrote to offer their support for the journal. In a letter included in the exhibit, neurosurgeon Duncan Kinnear Fischer, M.D. ’86, Ph.D. ’86, described the journal as “critical” in teaching medical students “skills necessary for professional and academic thinking.” The journal is now supported by the School of Medicine’s Office of Education and by donors, including alumni who served as journal editors during their time at Yale.

At the colloquium, Tamas Horvath, DVM, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Comparative Medicine, and professor of neurobiology and of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences, noted that in 2013 he gave the inaugural talk at the journal’s lecture series. His talk for the 90th anniversary was titled “Hunger Promotes Life.” Christopher van Dyck, MD, professor of psychiatry, neurology, and neuroscience, and director or the Alzheimer's Disease Research Unit, offered “Alzheimer’s Update: Early Detection and Prevention.”

In her introductory remarks, Beilinson noted that at the age of 90, the journal is on track to set a milestone for student-run biomedical journals.

“We are going to be the longest-running student journal in about two years,” she said. “The Johns Hopkins medical journal has us beat at 93 years, but they stopped publishing about 20 years ago.”

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