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Radical History Review 80 (2001) 5-34

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"Caution: The AMA May Be Dangerous to Your Health":
The Student Health Organizations (SHO) and American Medicine, 1965-1970

Naomi Rogers



In 1964, as the American Medical Association (AMA) struggled to defeat Medicare, a group of medical students at the University of Southern California (USC) organized a series of outside speakers to raise health issues avoided in the standard medical curriculum. Michael Harrington, Alan Guttmacher, Thomas Szasz, Benjamin Spock, and other prominent progressives attracted students to provocative talks on such topics as abortion law reform, disease and poverty, racial discrimination in medicine, and chemical and biological warfare. Inspired by the success of the forum, USC medical students began producing a school paper, Borborygmi (stomach rumbles), and drew together students of medicine, nursing, and dentistry across Los Angeles to try to put into practice their commitment to reforming American health care. During 1965 the group tested the sight and hearing of a thousand children enrolled in Head Start, staffed a new family planning clinic in East Los Angeles, and wrote and distributed 5,000 copies of a pamphlet debating proposals to reform California's restrictive abortion law. 1 [End Page 5] [Begin Page 7]

The Los Angeles activists soon discovered other student health projects in San Francisco, Boston, New York, Cleveland, Detroit, and Minneapolis. With the help of USC medical senior William Bronston, whose wife's job as a TWA flight attendant enabled him to fly cheaply, they began to envision a national organization modeled on the Student Democratic Society (SDS) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). "Charismatic, articulate, and, to some, threatening," Fitzhugh Mullan, then a medical student in Chicago, recalled, "Bronston sparked enthusiasm and controversy wherever he touched down." 2 In October 1965, the first national meeting was held at the University of Chicago, attended by sixty-five students from twenty-five schools of medicine, nursing, dentistry, pharmacy, and social work. Debating the Vietnam War, the inequities of fee-for-service medicine, dehumanizing hospitals, and alienating professional training, they chose the name Student Health Organizations (SHO), a reference to the World Health Organization, whose 1948 charter defined health as "a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity." The group also deliberately chose the word "Health" to deemphasize the role of the physician and to reinforce a commitment to multidisciplinary action. The proceedings of the 1965 meeting were distributed to health science schools around the country, and a year later 350 students attended SHO's second national meeting. 3

At a time when the AMA was a respected and powerful force, SHO displayed a self-conscious irreverence for organized medicine, exemplified by a photograph in a popular magazine of a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania wearing long hair and, on his white coat, a button that read "Caution: The AMA May Be Dangerous to Your Health." 4 Always a minority among their peers, SHO activists considered themselves "potential leaders of our profession and our nation" whose duty was "to develop our ideas and create programs to support them." 5 SHO chapters founded newspapers with titles like Catalyst and Grand Mal, circulated petitions, and organized demonstrations inside and outside their schools and hospitals. Idealistic and passionate, these students believed that American health care could be transformed, hospitals democratized, and health science schools made responsive to the war against poverty and disease. They were to be the fighters inside the system, providing its conscience, uncovering the humanistic tradition within medicine, and ensuring the power of biomedical science was available to all Americans.

This student health movement attracted young men and women training for careers in medicine, nursing, dentistry, pharmacy, social work, education, and psychology. They were a diverse group: some serious activists, a few theorists able to develop and articulate a broad SHO philosophy, and many more who participated in single projects. What provided SHO with its greatest appeal were its community action programs, the Summer Health Projects (SHPs). SHO's...