Book burning

Fired up

By 1973, the U-M obstetrician-gynecologist J. Robert Willson had been at the top of his field for years.

J. Robert Willson, ob-gyn chair

J. Robert Willson

As chair of obstetrics and gynecology in the Michigan Medical School since 1964, he had built the department into one of the best in the country. He had published dozens of scientific studies. As an officer of national organizations of ob-gyns in the years before Roe v. Wade, he had been a strong proponent of women’s right to abortion. And he was co-author of a leading textbook for medical students, Obstetrics and Gynecology, already in its fourth edition.

Then, in the spring of that year, Willson learned that a small group of local activists calling themselves Advocates for Medical Information (AMI) planned a ritual burning of a copy of his textbook in the center of the Diag.

AMI’s indictment against Obstetrics and Gynecology: It was “sexist.”

To most Americans of the early ’70s, the word “sexist” was new. It had been coined only a few years earlier. Like a racist judging people by their race, the writer Caroline Bird said in 1968, a sexist “judges people by their sex when sex doesn’t matter.” As the modern feminist movement gathered force in the early ’70s, the assault on sexism was spreading.

In Ann Arbor, Dr. Willson was its latest target.

“Boorish and disgusting”

When AMI’s activists announced their plan, debate flared in the pages of The Michigan Daily. But the argument was over the tactic more than the target.

Whatever the merits of AMI’s complaint, the Daily said, its protest would be “boorish and disgusting.”

“The Nazis burned books by Jews and Communists,” the editors declared. “The Russian Communists burned ‘counter-revolutionary’ books . . . AMI could hardly have chosen a worse tactic to express their distaste for the book . . . [It] symbolizes the destruction of the right to freely express ideas, whether people find those ideas repugnant or not. Burning a book is an act of censorship that strikes to the heart of an academic community and any society that wishes to call itself free.”

AMI fired back.

“If you think symbolic book burning is ‘boorish and disgusting,’ try reading the book,” wrote Kay Weiss, AMI’s co-founder, to the Daily.

She offered a catalog of quotations from Obstetrics and Gynecology, including:

  • The traits that compose the core of the feminine personality are feminine narcissicm, masochism, and passivity.
  • The normal sexual act . . .entails a masochistic surrender to the man. . .there is always an element of rape.
  • She is likely to. . . think of the vagina as a “dirty cavity.”

Fahrenheit 451

The day of the protest approached. Dr. Willson was “deeply distressed,” according to a spokesman for the Medical Center, but he wouldn’t speak to Daily reporters.

The Medical Library put its six copies of Obstetrics and Gynecology out of reach.

“The books have been placed in the rare book cage until they’ve finished burning somebody else’s copies,” said David Maxfield, head of the library. “When they cease to be hot we’ll put them back on the shelves.”

On the afternoon of Wednesday, April 11, members of AMI dressed in white lab coats dragged a barrel labeled “Trash Burned Here” to the middle of the Diag. About 150 students gathered to watch. Some cheered, some hissed as the protesters incinerated a copy of Obstetrics and Gynecology and several other books, including David Reuben’s Any Woman Can, a best-selling guide purporting to advise women on the secrets of sexual fulfillment.

“We’re burning more than just a book today,” declared Nancy Lessin, of Ann Arbor’s Free People’s Medical Clinic. “We’re symbolically destroying a tool used by medical schools to kill and maim and bring suffering to women in this country.

“No one would mind if we burned a textbook that taught doctors to use unsterile methods, to abandon anesthetics, and to rip into the skin with dirty instruments.”

Public fires violated a city ordinance, but two Ann Arbor cops just looked on from the edge of the crowd. President Robben Fleming said he disapproved, but only after the fact.

Dr. Willson’s response

Over in the Medical School, Dr. Willson pondered what to do. Nearly two weeks after the protest, he put his thoughts in a letter addressed to the editors of the Daily.

“I have no concern that there is disagreement with parts of the book,” he wrote. Other ob-gyns had already voiced some of the same concerns to him.

What bothered him, he said, was that AMI’s activists had not addressed him directly, as his colleagues had — and that others “have not made the effort to examine the book itself.”

The protested passages looked different in context, he said.

For example, the full passage about “dirty cavities” came from “a discussion of douching in which we say that douching is almost never necessary,” he wrote. “The rest of the paragraph is as follows: ‘Some women will protest that they feel cleaner after a douche, and a few will hesitantly tell us that they are aware of an unpleasant odor unless they douche regularly. Both of these reasons express a psychologic rather than a physical need for cleanliness. The physician should explain . . . that the organ is neither unclean nor malodorous . . . This explanation is particularly helpful to the obsessive woman who tends to think of the vagina as a ‘dirty cavity’ that needs careful cleansing once or several times a day.”

The only copy of Willson’s letter is a typescript in his papers at the Bentley Historical Library. Either he chose not to send it, or the Daily’s editors chose not to publish it. The latter is unlikely, since they had published many letters on the book burning and had sought Willson’s comments. So perhaps he thought it better to let the matter blow over and filed the draft of his letter away.

In private, he confided to a colleague that the key chapter in question “probably should be redone completely” for the next edition of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and that a woman should write it.

When the next edition was published in 1975, it included this note: “The women’s liberation movement has been an important influence in altering sexual roles in a most dramatic way. [T]he new ideal places a woman’s position as equal to that of the male . . .”

Five revised editions of Obstetrics and Gynecology were published after the book burning, the last in 1991.

Dr. Willson remained chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology until 1978. He retired from the faculty in 1983 and died in an auto accident in 1993. A professorship in the Medical School is named in his honor.

Sources included The Michigan Daily; the J. Robert Willson papers in the Bentley Historical Library; “The Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology” in The University of Michigan: An Encyclopedic Survey (forthcoming); and “Feminism Friday: The Origins of the Word Sexism,” in Finally: A Feminism 101 Blog.


  1. Larry Weisenthal - 1974 PhD. 1975 MD

    Clinical lectures given to 1st and 2nd year medical students circa 1968 and 1969 from surgeons and OB-GYNs contained sexist “humor,” depicted on at least one lantern slide I recall. Approximately 10% of the class was female. The jokes seemed inappropriate, even at the time (I winced, while being careful not to look at any of the women in attendance). Such things today would be considered to be unthinkable sexual harassment.
    You might also research and write about an annual ritual called the “Galen’s Smoker.”
    Times have changed … for the better, thankfully.


  2. Anthony Jiga - 1971

    The book burners accomplished their objective: Dr. Willson took notice and made appropriate revisions in later editions. Could they have gotten the attention of the good professor with a form of protest that was not repugnant? Most likely yes. But their main objective obviously was to get the attention of the news media and the broader world. That they did, and helped to bring about progressive change in attitudes, behavior and laws. I wonder whether the protest organizers debated the ugly symbolism of book burning and considered and rejected alternative forms of protest.


    • Mike Jefferson - 1979

      Yes, an objective at any price. Today a textbook, tomorrow murder those you don’t agree with. That’s the problem with you lefties you ignore reason, process, and laws to achieve what you want. Instead of burning books – it’s always easier to destroy than create (a specialty of the left) – why didn’t the tools write an alternative textbook and let the marketplace of ideas decide? In the same way that liberals have lost election after election at state, local, and federal levels because they have no ideas, they have enlisted the media and left wing enterprises to bring violence in the streets and use judges to legislate the things that they can not achieve through the ballot box. Cheers Comrade!


  3. Mike Jefferson - 1979

    How apropos; an article about book burning when the Stalinist, Marxist, Anti-fa elements are rioting in the streets and attacking people. The irony is that under left wing totalitarianism universities suffer. Freedom of thought, expression, and advances in math, science, and the arts are set asunder in favor of group think. Instead of promoting tolerance, these fascist behaviors achieve the opposite; when one demonizes and dehumanizes people, instead of respecting differences of opinion violence, murder, and mayhem result. Hitler murdered some 40 million people in his rage against humanity and Stalin killed just as many if not more. So, while you folks rage and plot in your coffee houses and coops, the reality of your cutesy fantasies result in the barbarism of millions. Peace dudes.


  4. Anne Wolfe - 1980

    In this space I can only say that, to address some of Willson’s comments on women, that for women to wait for the baby to be born was less passivity and more practicality, as if one wants a child, what is the alternative, and taking an active role in practicing good health habits and feeling the life inside is not passivity; that the social mating dance is and was far more complex than “being pursued” — women generally had ways of attracting the attention of and socially involving the men they were interested in while still allowing the men to feel that they were “in pursuit,” if social norms demanded it. And as far as being second fiddle to the husband as home-maker, careers they would like to have chosen were often off-limits to women, even off-limits to imagining, and being home-makers and active volunteers often were the only socially acceptable and open alternatives, unless they wanted to do menial work. The sex act is and was in normal loving couples an act of cooperation rather than an act of raping the woman in any way; if one understands what rape is. Some of Willson’s notions appear to be simple and based on ignorance and inability to understand the complexity of the ideas he was grasping at. But he did see that women were in a second-fiddle position to men, and did not have proper instruction on health matters, and were not being well-attended to by doctors, perhaps, overall … though he did not seem to grasp what made it that way, he did grasp that women had to fight their way out of it.


  5. Daniel Iyama-Kurtycz - 1976

    I was in Med School during the event, and we were amazed by the chapter on the psychology of women. We all though that it had arisen from a 1930’s psychology of OB-GYN’s, and was irrelevant. Since none of that material was on a test, it was ignored. The world marches on. Even two decades ago, the world was a much different place. A half century ago, it was an alien place.


  6. Daniel Kurtycz - 1976

    By the way. I still have my copy in our library and occasionally show it to cytotechnology students and pathology residents in order to talk about social and medical evolution. We just try to get better. We were not perfect in the time of Morgagni and Virchow. Best wishes.


  7. GM Freeman - 1950 Rackham

    Now the radicals are removing historic statues. Will the ignominious actions never cease?


    • Dan LaBell - 2014

      The book was criminal; Criminal Psychology at every turn.
      And, so not fit for young mothers, or anyone really.


  8. J Kowalsky - 1991 Law

    I find it interesting that when I was in law school, less than 20 years after this episode, there were prominent feminists, such as Andrea Dworkin, who claimed that penetrative intercourse is, by its nature, violent. (I had a class with Catherine MacKinnon and thought that I remember literature from that time which even said that Ms. Dworkin and others said that all sex is rape; though she made it clear that her position on sex relates to its role in a patriarchal society rather than all sex, I have seen articles recently that claim just that.)
    It is also interesting that the liberal Daily came to the defense of freedom of speech, even if they disagree with it or find it offensive. Again, 20 years later when I was in law school, the liberal Daily began censoring articles which it thought offensive. It was the more conservative Law Student newspaper which spoke out against this censorship and in favor of free speech.
    I do not intend this comment as a judgment of anything, but merely an observation on the interesting ways that positions change over time.


  9. James Roberts - 1966 med 1971 Obstetrics and Gynecology

    Dr. J. Robert Willson with whom I did my obstetrical training had a tremendous impact on my approach to medicine and to life. He was a woman’s advocate in the years before this was fashionalble including advocating choice and inclusion of women in his training program. He was also one of the most open minded and fair persons I have ever met. His book was a product of its time with statements we would now consider inappropriate. He clearly would have responded to the concern about his book, many justified, if those with objections had approached him. He did in fact change the book based on these concerns in future editions. I think this may be a lesson for our times of the danger of not approaching individuals with dialog about concerns but rather labeling. Of all the men I have ever known he was the least deserving of the label, sexist.


  10. Roger Szafranski - 1977

    That’s it, if you disagree with an idea burn the book rather than discuss it. It makes me ill to think of anybody burning a book, whatever the content. NOT TODAY, NOT IN THIS SOCIETY!


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