Dr. Raymond Yesner, Department Historian
Professor Emeritus Dr. Raymond Yesner has seen many people come and go in the Department of Pathology. In fact, he’s the one people turn to with questions about the department’s past.
Yesner, who worked at Yale for more than 50 years, was considered the Pathology Department historian. Knowing this, he decided to write the “History of the Yale Department of Pathology” which was published in the “Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine.” [Ed. note: the article appeared as "A Century of Pathology at Yale: Personal Reflections", Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 71(5):397-408, Nov 1997; viewable here.] He gives the reader an in-depth view of not only how the Pathology Department got started at Yale, and a history of those instrumental in founding and establishing the department, but also of the mores of the time.
Although the medical school broke ground near the Grove Street Cemetery in 1813, more than 100 years passed before the department was established in the Brady Memorial Building after the Brady family donated funds toward its construction.
Dr. Milton C. Winternitz was the patriarch of the pathology department. He modeled it after John Hopkins University, the top medical school of its time. “There was no real pathology department here until Winternitz came,” says Yesner. Winternitz came to Yale because there was no chance he’d be promoted to professor at Hopkins. Like many of the country’s medical schools, Hopkins discriminated against those who weren’t “white, male, Protestant, and preferably rich,” wrote Yesner. Yale was more liberal.
Incidentally, up until the 1950s, the Board of Directors of New Haven Hospital opposed Catholics and Jews on its staff. “These are unfortunate things. We think of African Americans as the group that chiefly had problems, but others did, too,” says Yesner.
Winternitz became dean of the medical school in 1917 and subsequently wrote a book on the great flu pandemic of the next 2 years, which may be found in the Historical Library in the Sterling Hall of Medicine. Another memento of this Brady Professor of Pathology may be found over the door to the Beaumont Room in SHM: his initials, carved with Averill Liebow’s Samurai sword, after, as Yesner puts it, “a well-oiled Christmas party”.
Nearly 20 years ago, Yesner was on the search committee for a Surgical Pathology director. He did a nationwide search for candidates who were women or black and who held leadership positions. He found only five pathologists who were women and none who were African American. Yesner says he wrote about the discrimination because he wanted to illustrate how attitudes have changed.
Not only have attitudes about gender and ethnicity changed, but also our knowledge about the causes of disease, he points out. For example, Harry S. N. Greene was recruited to Yale in the early ’40s largely because of his research. He implanted malignant and embryonic tissues into rabbit eyes using a special needle that he designed. If the implanted tissue grew in the eye, Greene believed it was cancer.
Yesner writes, “When other investigators failed to reproduce his claims about embryonic tissue and cancer growth in rabbit eyes, he said his success was due to the quality of the New Haven air, which may have had something to do with his remark when I asked him why he came to Yale. He said he liked to open the window and smell skunk.”
Yesner also writes that Greene, who succeeded Winternitz as Chairman, refused to blame tobacco smoke for the rise of lung cancer. Greene, a pipe smoker, implanted tobacco residue along with embryonic tissue into rabbit eyes. No cancer resulted. Thus, he believed tobacco wasn’t carcinogenic. “The Tobacco Institute, which had given him a grant,” writes Yesner, “was pleased.”
It should be noted that over the door to Greene’s office were the words: Hic locus est ubi mors gaudet succurrere vitae (In this place death rejoices in helping life), which now embellish the Autopsy suite.
Yesner details many personnel and structural changes in Pathology over the past few decades, including numerous faculty achievements and awards. He writes about doctors with familiar names like Harvey Cushing, Harry Zimmerman, Gerald Klatskin, William (Barry) McAllister, Averill Liebow, Lewis Thomas - and details the changes in Yale’s clinical laboratories, Grace and Hew Haven hospitals, the VAH, the teaching of medical students and the many changes which occurred after World War II.
Yesner also includes details of his own career at Yale and the West Haven Veterans Administration Medical Center, which serves as a clinical campus for YMS. Yesner came to the department in 1947, just as Winternitz was ending his tenure. A 1941 graduate of Tufts Medical School, and a resident at Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital from 1941 to 1944, Yesner was a pathologist during WWII from 1944 to 1946. After his tour of duty, he returned to Boston, where Dr. Tracy Mallory, of Massachusetts General Hospital, successfully urged him to join the newly formed Dean’s Committee VA hospital system.
In order to treat American war soldiers successfully, a partnership between medical schools and government hospitals was established in 1946, following WWII. Thus, a system of Dean’s Committee Hospitals, now known as VA Hospitals, was formed. Yale was affiliated with the Newington VA Hospital until the one in West Haven was built.
Yesner’s initial role in the department was Chief of Laboratory Service for the Newington Veterans Administration Hospital, which was the original clinical campus for YMS. After the West Haven VA Hospital was constructed, Yesner served as its Chief of Laboratory Service, and subsequently, its Chief of Staff. He served as Associate Dean (for VA Affairs) at Yale Medical School. In 1984, he became Professor Emeritus, and, in 1987, Director of Yale’s Autopsy Service and was appointed Senior Research Scientist. He was a preeminent authority on the histopathological types of lung cancer. His Atlas of Lung Cancer was published in1998 by Lippincott-Raven.