New book dissects 1st 200 years of Yale medicine


Portraits of past leaders of the Yale School of Medicine line the corridors of the Sterling Hall of Medicine on Cedar Street, but not all of them had been made into digital images when Kerry L. Falvey set out to document the school’s 200-year history.

“I literally had to seek out where Nathan Smith was hanging,” said Falvey of one of the school’s four founders.

She found him in Sterling’s rotunda.

Falvey got to know Smith and many other leaders of the school over the two years she researched and wrote “Medicine at Yale: The First 200 Years,” a large-size, 246-page book that will be issued by Yale University Press. It sells for $50.

Begun by Yale College and the Connecticut Medical Society as the Medical Institution of Yale College, the school bore little resemblance to the modern school it became, Falvey said. Professors earned much of their income by selling tickets to their lectures.

But even that was progress. Before medical schools were founded — Yale’s was the sixth in the nation — men learned medicine by apprenticing themselves to other doctors. To gain a spot in the first class of 37, each candidate only had to “produce satisfactory evidence of a blameless life and conversation.”

Among the many thousands of graduates since, Beatrix McCleary went from being the school’s first female African-American graduate in 1948 to her current role as a visiting scholar at Weill Cornell Medical College’s Department of Psychiatry.

In her research, Falvey relied greatly on a previous history of the School of Medicine, the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, which “used to publish a lot of historical pieces,” and especially on the research done by Toby A. Appel, retired librarian of medical history at the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library.

“She knows pretty much everything there is to know about the history of this place and the history of medicine in Connecticut,” Falvey said.

Along the way, Falvey found that some of the current issues in health care are not really so new. More than 70 years ago, Dr. John P. Peters Jr. became a target of traditionalists when he proposed government support for hospitals and research — “national health care, essentially,” according to Falvey.

“He was very committed to that cause. … He didn’t go quite so far as to say it should be free for everybody, but he thought care for the indigent was a really important responsibility.”

Critics, however, led by Dr. Morris Fishbein, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, attacked Peters and his colleagues, accusing them of “sovietism.”

In 1951, a Loyalty Review Board found “reasonable doubt” about Peters’ loyalty to his country, a charge he fought and won in the U.S. Supreme Court, but only on technical grounds, according to the book. He died in 1955, a few months after the decision.

Another leader of the school, Dr. Paul B. Beeson, was renowned as a clinician, Falvey said, and “had this great sort of charisma so he inspired complete loyalty in his residents.” He was chairman of the Department of Internal Medicine from 1952 to 1965 and died in 2006 at 97 years old.

“I got really fond of a lot of people” while researching the book, Falvey said.

The book ends with five essays that look to the future of medicine and the school. “The dean (Robert J. Alpern) has wanted to focus the bicentennial events … on things that aren’t just looking toward the past, but things that are looking to the future,” Falvey said.

Falvey’s background is in scientific publishing and she had done research for a public television mini-series on the French and Indian War of 1754-63 before she was hired for the two-year book project. After it was completed, Alpern hired her as his chief of staff.

She was thrilled to stay with the School of Medicine. “I actually got so fond of the place I was really hating having to look for another job,” Falvey said.

Especially now that she knows who the people are in all those portraits in the hallway.