Yale Bulletin and Calendar

February 24, 2006|Volume 34, Number 20















John Flynn, pictured here with a grandchild, was refused employment at more than a dozen universities after he was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The Yale School of Medicine welcomed him to its faculty in 1954.

Donated books a 'reminder' of
once-blacklisted Yale neuroscientist

The late John Patrick Flynn, a member of the School of Medicine faculty from 1954 until his retirement in 1979, had a visceral reaction to bullies, particularly those who blacklisted academics, actors and others during the McCarthy era.

This was because Flynn (1914-1980), widely known as a learned and compassionate person and a gifted researcher in the Department of Psychiatry, was the subject of bullying by the infamous House Committee on Un-American Activities as a young scientist and was ostracized to an extent that almost derailed his promising career.

The little-known story was revealed recently when Flynn's daughter, Sarah Flynn, donated her father's rare three-volume set of Santiago Ramón y Cajal's "Textura del Sistema Nervioso del Hombra y de los Vertebrados" (Madrid, 1889-1904) to the Yale Medical Historical Library.

"Both of my parents very much believed in the right to free expression," said Sarah Flynn.

Her mother, Hulda Rees Flynn (1910-2000), had been a faculty member at Smith College and Mt. Holyoke before meeting Flynn at Columbia University, where they were both pursuing Ph.D.'s. The two married in 1945, and, after a brief stint at Harvard, John Flynn took a job as head of the psychology and statistics division at the Naval Medical Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland. Hulda put her career on hold while raising their three daughters.

In 1953, the couple was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and John Flynn was soon fired from his Navy job. This was despite excellent performance reviews and general acclaim by his fellow scientists. Flynn was told he could keep his position if he divorced his wife, who had been active in left-wing political groups as a young faculty member.

"He was called before the committee in Executive Session and my mother was questioned in a public session," Sarah Flynn said. "My father told them to go to hell."

John Flynn then discovered how long the arm of the government could be. Agents began eavesdropping on his telephone conversations -- "One time my father could hear the person breathing on the other end and invited him to join our Thanksgiving dinner," recalled Sarah Flynn -- and he couldn't land a new position. He received offers of employment from colleagues across the country at 13 universities, but each time his name reached the provost's office, the colleague was informed that the university could not hire him.

"My father was so desperate he thought about becoming a television repairman," Sarah Flynn said. "When you consider what an eminent neuroscientist he was, it's pretty telling about what people had to resort to in those times."

Ultimately, Yale's School of Medicine extended an invitation, and in 1954, John Flynn began working with Paul MacLean, who held a joint appointment in physiology and psychiatry and was studying the limbic system. Flynn's work eventually focused on the neural basis of aggressive behavior. He is recognized as a pioneer in neuroscience for his contribution to the understanding of the function of the hippocampus and hypothalamus.

As a neurophysiologist, Flynn was attached primarily to the Department of Psychiatry and served from 1968 to 1979 as director of the Abraham Ribicoff Research Facilities at the Connecticut Mental Health Center (CMHC). Each year since 1982, a lecture has been held in Flynn's honor at CMHC recognizing his pivotal role in establishing the central importance of basic neuroscience research as the frontier for clinical psychiatric studies.

Hulda Flynn came to Yale in 1956 as assistant managing editor and then managing editor of the Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol; served on the planning project for the CMHC; and then worked closely with the director, Boris Astrachan, as a research associate and assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry. She retired in 1978.

Dr. B. Stephen Bunney, chair of the Department of Psychiatry, said he had an inkling of what had happened to John Flynn when he himself had a run-in with the federal government as a young psychiatrist in 1971. After completing postdoctoral work at Yale on a government fellowship, Bunney was offered a faculty position but was told by a government functionary that he had to complete three years' work in Washington to comply with the terms of his fellowship -- terms that had been changed after he signed up for the program. Come to Washington, Bunney was told, or be blackballed and unable to join a psychiatry department anywhere in the United States. John Flynn, outraged at the way Bunney was being treated, called leading psychiatric researchers around the country, told them Bunney's story, and asked whether they would hire him. To a person, they all said yes, and Bunney remained at Yale.

"My father always stood up for people he felt were being discriminated against one way or another," said Sarah Flynn. "That's what upset him about what was happening with Steve Bunney."

At the ceremony marking the presentation of Sarah Flynn's gift to the Medical Historical Library, President Richard C. Levin said he was proud that by "doing the right thing, Yale received what other universities did not -- the benefit of Flynn's excellent science and the Flynns' moral presence. In the end, Yale was the lucky one, more than repaid for doing what was right." He said the gift of the books was "all the more wonderful for the meaningful story that comes with it."

The books Sarah donated to the library are a story unto themselves. Inside the first volume is an inscription written in Spanish by Cajal in 1910. It reads, in part, "Because of the brain, man is the king of creation, and to clarify the structure of the brain is to understand why that figure is at the head of the animal kingdom and how civilization was created, a sign of human superiority to the rest of the beings."

Speaking at the presentation, Dr. Gordon Shepherd, professor of neuroscience, said the books are priceless because Cajal is considered the founder of modern neuroscience. He said Cajal's inspired use of the Golgi stain, beginning in 1888, enabled him to describe not only the main types of neuron in the nervous system as separate cells, which became the basis of the neuron theory, but also to infer how they interact through junctions between them to form the circuits for brain functions.

"The enduring appreciation of Cajal's pioneering role in modern neuroscience gives the acquisition of this rare original edition a special significance," Shepherd said. "It is not only an ornament in the library's collection, but also a reminder of John Flynn's own distinguished contribution to neuroscience at Yale and of the generosity and thoughtfulness of Sarah Flynn in giving it a home here in his memory."

-- By Jacqueline Weaver


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