Quentin Young

BMJ 2016; 353 doi: (Published 27 April 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;353:i2393
  1. Anne Gulland
  1. London
  1. annecgulland{at}

Doctor and activist

Quentin David Young was born and raised in Chicago and was closely associated with Cook County Hospital, the city’s only public hospital. It was during one of the institution’s many crises that Young, an internist by training, was asked to become chief of medicine. Young, who had done his residency and internship at the hospital, was a radical with a strong sense of outrage at social injustice and he was appointed in the hope that he would be able to attract like-minded physicians.

Cook County Hospital

The hospital was falling apart—both physically and metaphorically. Because of its reputation it struggled to attract staff so Young set about recruiting a cohort of young, socially committed doctors.

Chief of medicine was a tough job: the hospital was constantly in the headlines and its patients were poor and sick. Young, whose management style was inclusive rather than authoritarian, encouraged dialogue with his staff, which meant that he was often in demand and long days were normal.

A 1979 BBC documentary, I Call It Murder, caught County in all its chaotic glory. It began with an interview with a young doctor who described it as the hospital all the private hospitals “dumped on”—sending it patients who couldn’t pay or were drunk.

Young was fired twice during his tenure as chief of medicine because of his support of, but not participation in, a strike by the hospital’s house staff. Firing someone with such a strong sense of workers’ rights was a foolish decision—Young argued that he was dismissed without due process and was reinstated both times.

After the strikes he set up a committee to save the hospital, which culminated in its being completely rebuilt in 2002, with its future secured. By this time Young had long since left but he had been instrumental in the eventual success. He left County in 1981 and in 1983 was appointed president of Chicago’s board of health.

Young’s work at the hospital was not all controversy—he set up an occupational health department in partnership with the University of Illinois as he believed it was important that occupational medicine be taken out of the hands of employers. And he restricted the prescription of tranquillisers and sedatives in the outpatient clinic by insisting that prescriptions be countersigned by senior doctors.

Early years

Young was born to Jewish parents, Abe and Sarah, who had fled Europe. His father trained as a pharmacist but eventually made money through real estate. It was during visits to see his maternal grandparents in North Carolina that the seeds of Young’s political activism were sewn. In the racially segregated south, Young would see black women and children toiling in the tobacco fields for white landowners. He wrote, “I was too young to have a political orientation, but I could sense that their worth to their farmer-bosses depended on how much they could pick.”1

His interest in politics continued throughout school and university, where he joined the American Student Union. In 1940 he enrolled at the University of Chicago but enlisted in the army in 1943 at the age of 19, with dreams of fighting the Nazis. Much to his disappointment he remained in the US, continuing his medical training with the army, first at Cornell University and then at Northwestern University.

While in the army, Young married his childhood sweetheart, Jessie, with whom he had five children. They divorced after 15 years, and he became the first father in the state of Illinois to secure joint custody of his children. He remarried again in 1980 to Ruth Weaver, who predeceased him by nine years.

After serving his residency and internship at County he set up private practice in Hyde Park, on Chicago’s south side, with attending privileges at Michael Reese Hospital. He continued private practice throughout his life, even while chair of medicine at County, retiring at the age of 86. He was popular among his patients, who did not mind his late running clinics as they knew he liked to take his time with them.

Social justice

At the beginning of his career Young helped found the Committee to End Discrimination in Chicago’s Medical Institutions. Segregation of hospitals was not an official policy, and it was only when the committee obtained figures showing that most births and deaths among the black population happened in the poorer hospitals that Chicago city council ruled that it was unlawful to deny treatment to a patient because of race. Two years later the city ruled that it was unlawful to racially discriminate against staff.

Young even managed to overturn an unofficial colour bar in his own chapter of the American Medical Association. He was invited to run for secretary, on the grounds that the chapter hierarchy did not want a black person gaining the position. Secretary was a stepping stone to chair, and Young knew that he would be able to nominate his successor. He duly nominated a black colleague, Clyde Phillips.

Young was also involved in the wider civil rights movement through the Medical Committee for Human Rights, which he helped found. He provided medical support to those taking part in the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, and became Martin Luther King, Jr’s personal doctor when he visited Chicago. Young treated him only once, when someone hurled a rock at him during a march for fair housing.

Young never lost the fight for campaigning. In the 1980s he was a tireless advocate of single payer national health insurance and became president of the organisation, Physicians for a National Health Program. He was a well known figure on the national stage but was never admitted to the inner sanctum of policy making. He met Hillary Clinton when she began her healthcare initiative as first lady but was unimpressed with her ideas.

He was also disappointed by president Barack Obama’s health reforms, which, he felt, gave too much power to the health insurers. He knew Obama, a fellow Chicago southsider, and supported his candidacy for president. In recent months he was energised by Bernie Sanders’s campaign for the Democratic nomination for president, having met him previously to discuss single payer insurance.

Paragraphs about his political activism could give the impression that Young was a dour man, but nothing could be further from the truth. He was the eternal optimist, the happy warrior who would gladly march out to battle again and again. Nothing bothered him more than a cynical or conservative young person. He was a great raconteur and loved the arts, visiting the Shakespeare festival in Stratford, Ontario, every year.

Quentin David Young (b 1923; q Northwestern University 1948), d 7 March 2016.


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