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Register of the Ben Yellen Papers
MSS 193  
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  • Scope and Content of Collection
  • Biography
  • Preferred Citation
  • Acquisition Information
  • Access

  • Title: Ben Yellen Papers
    Identifier/Call Number: MSS 193
    Contributing Institution: Mandeville Special Collections Library
    Language of Material: English.
    Physical Description: 18.0 linear feet (45 archives boxes)
    Date (inclusive): 1945 - 1994
    Abstract: Papers of Benjamin L. Yellen (1907-1994), physician and political activist in Brawley, California. Most materials date from 1948 to 1994 and pertain to water, farming and medical issues in Southern California. Typewritten correspondence forms the core of the collection, while newspaper clippings, newsletters and published and government documents compose the supporting materials.
    creator: Yellen, Ben, 1907-

    Scope and Content of Collection

    Accession Processed in 1996
    The Ben Yellen Papers document grassroots social and political activism in the arenas of western farm labor and water policy. Yellen's correspondence dates from 1948 to 1994 and encompasses a variety of topics: migrant farm workers, water policy, tax assessment, electricity rates, local politics, the law, medical malpractice, and the compounding of prescriptions. The correspondence in each series is supported by an array of published materials, as well as documents from the Brawley city government and newsletters from a variety of small organizations.
    Ben Yellen was a loud voice of protest against the entrenched power of California's commercial farmers. Although his primary lawsuit to compel the federal government to enforce the 1902 Reclamation Law did not ultimately lead to the redistribution of land in Imperial Valley, he brought the issue to national attention and caused the big growers significant discomfort and sizable legal bills. His correspondence and lawsuits allege how the politically and economically powerful interests of Imperial Valley sought to silence him by attacking his medical practice and his personal integrity. His incomplete and idiosyncratic collection of newsletters and small publications reveals a web of small, liberal organizations fighting for the rights of the poor. His crusades against the tax and electricity "swindles" illustrate the extent to which the special privileges and power of the big growers affected the lives of citizens of Imperial Valley. Finally, Yellen represented a style of liberalism that mixed a strong desire to do good with a dose of paternalism and a powerful sense of individual importance and empowerment.
    Because of the scattered way in which Yellen gathered and disseminated information, much of the documentation gathered here is incomplete. For example, Yellen acquired the annual reports of the Imperial Irrigation District for the years between 1963 and 1990; however, nine of the twenty-seven years are missing. Additionally, Yellen solicited information about major water projects in California, Arizona, and Colorado. As a result, the collection contains snippets of data about projects such as the Salt River and Boulder Canyon, but not enough information for a coherent study of either topic. Generally speaking, Yellen's correspondence is marred by his rambling prose style and his tendency to blur issues together in one letter. His letters are also highly repetitive because Yellen remained focused on water and related issues for three decades and his ideas about these topics changed little over time.
    The YELLOWSHEETS AND LETTERS TO THE EDITOR series provides an overview of Yellen's ideas and activities. The series is arranged into two chronological subseries: A) Yellowsheets and B) Letters to the Editor.
    The "Yellowsheets," or newsletters, were distributed by hand in the Imperial Valley and mailed to people throughout the country. The bulk dates from the 1960s and diminishes through the 1970s and 1980s. Yellen used the yellowsheets to present his views directly to the people of the Imperial Valley and to explain how he thought they were all being exploited by the big growers.
    As the frequency of yellowsheets declined through the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, Yellen increasingly relied on "Letters to the Editor" to express his views in public. The Imperial Valley Press and the Brawley News published Yellen's letters beginning in 1960 and continued to do so until 1992. The majority of this subseries comprises copies of printed letters; however, originals for which we do not have a printed copy and originals which differ from the printed version are also held.
    The FARM WORKERS series deals with the issue that first drew Yellen into social and political activism -- the plight of Mexican migrant farm laborers. The series is organized into three subseries: A) Correspondence, B) Lawsuits, and C) Supporting Materials. In the late 1950s, Yellen formed the Committee for the Protection of Mexican Workers when he realized that growers deducted medical insurance premiums from the paychecks of braceros, but the workers themselves received inadequate health care and the Continental Life Insurance Company denied them benefits following injury. In addition to the "insurance swindle," Yellen pointed out that growers charged workers exorbitant rates for room and board while providing substandard food. Additionally, the growers restricted the number of hours braceros worked and thereby severely limited the amount of money they earned.
    Around 1960 Yellen shifted his emphasis away from fighting for the rights of Mexican workers to excluding them in favor of domestic farm workers. Yellen maintained both that growers imported Mexican migrants at the expense of domestic farm workers and that Imperial Valley's economy suffered because Mexican workers sent their wages home and did not buy goods in local stores.
    The "Correspondence" subseries (1957-1994) is arranged chronologically and documents both the ill treatment of Mexican workers and Yellen's philosophical shift away from their cause. The letters are mainly outgoing of government agencies and individuals, the Department of Labor, state and national senators, the California Department of Employment, the National Advisory Committee on Farm Labor, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
    The "Lawsuits" subseries is also arranged chronologically and documents lawsuit and small claims court appeals filed by workers to gain wages and benefits from the big growers who had cheated them. Yellen initiated, or was in some way involved with, all of these cases. The affidavits and claims contained within these lawsuits provide a glimpse of working conditions for farm workers in the late 1950s.
    The "Supporting Materials" subseries includes financial statements; publications and newsletters by small groups interested in the rights of farm workers, including the National Advisory Committee on Farm Labor and Citizens for Farm Labor; and essays and reports about the conditions of farm work in California, including Grace Weist's dissertation Health Insurance for Braceros: A Study of its Developement and Implementation Under Public Law #78, for which Yellen helped gather data.
    The WATER AND RELATED POLITICAL ACTIVITIES series is the core and largest part of the Yellen Papers. It is organized into three subseries: A) Correspondence, B) Lawsuits, and C) Supporting Material. Yellen discusses a variety of interrelated issues in his correspondence from 1959 to 1994; the enforcement of the 160 acres limitation; from the residency requirement; the "tax swindle;" the "electricity swindle," and electoral politics in Brawley. Throughout his activist career, Yellen identified multiple levels on which the large land owners exploited the common people of Imperial Valley. He repeatedly argued that simple enforcement of the 160 acres limitation was insufficient to curtail the power of the big growers. He doggedly maintained and propagated his beliefs through three and a half decades of letter writing evidenced in this collection. He wrote letters to national political figures regularly in attempts to garner their attention to the local situation. For instance, he wrote to all the presidents, as well as senators and representatives in key positions. He frequently wrote to people who were featured in newspaper articles, as well as the authors of articles he found interesting. Running throughout this correspondence are recurring solicitations to lawyers to work on his various cases, although he was largely unsuccessful and undertook many of his later causes pro per. He also wrote continual solicitations to authors and television programs to visit Imperial Valley and publicize the story. In these letters, and others, he lamented what he saw as the persecution of his right to free speech by local authorities. He maintained extended correspondence with a few private figures including George Ballis, Charles Smith, John Chappell, and his lawyer, Arthur Brunwasser.
    The "Lawsuits" subseries contains legal documents from US vs Imperial Irrigation District and Ben Yellen vs Walter J. Hickel, as well as smaller related cases. The cases are arranged chronologically by their beginning date and the folders are chronological within each case. This subseries also holds Ben Yellen vs Thomas Story, Ricky Macken, and the City of Brawley, in its various manifestations. Yellen initiated this legal effort after he was arrested while distributing his pamphlets at the 1984 Cattle Call Parade. This suit marked the culmination of Yellen's struggle with the City of Brawley over his free speech rights to distribute his pamphlets unmolested.
    The "Supporting Materials" subseries contains a wide variety of material relating to Yellen's interrelated interests, chiefly A) Western water, B) Electricity, C) the Imperial Irrigation District, D) Political campaigns, and E) Imperial County and the City of Brawley.
    The "Western water" sub-subseries consists of reports and writings about western water issues. Much of the material is government documents and reports specifically related to the Reclamation law and its applicability to the Imperial Valley. There is also a collection of documents and pamphlets from different western water projects such as the Palo Verde Irrigation District, the Coachella Valley, the Central Valley Salton Sea, the San Joaquin Valley, the Metropolitan Water District, the Salt River Project and other Arizona projects, and the Colorado River Dam. Yellen amassed notable, although incomplete, runs of Western Water News (1960-1995) and the National Farmers Union Washington Newsletter (1964-1991). Likewise, Yellen saved newsletters and small publications from the California Agrarian Action Project (1980-1984), the California Farm Consumer Reporter (1965-1973), California Homeowner (1963-1971), National Land for People (1976-1985), Sharecropper (1972-1974), and the National Sharecropers' Fund (1971-1984).
    The second sub-subseries deals with Yellen's enduring interest in "Electricity." In particular, it contains Imperial Irrigation District electricity rate schedules and pamphlets (1962-1989), as well as similar information for the Tennessee Valley Authority (1967-1992).
    Yellen's nemesis in his political activism was the Imperial Irrigation District, which controlled the distribution of water and electricity in Imperial Valley and was in turn controlled by the large growers. The third sub-subseries is a collection of IID documents including audit reports (1960-1964), annual reports (1963-1990) and the IID publication District News (1960-1974). Also included in this area are publications made by other pro-big farmer groups, including pamphlets specifically attacking Yellen.
    The fourth sub-subseries, "Political campaigns," holds examples of Yellen's political advertisements, as well as advertisements from other local campaigns. Most of this material is from the 1960s.
    The fifth and final sub-subseries is a sizable collection of material pertaining to Imperial County and the City of Brawley, including descriptions of and fiscal data about Imperial County; the minutes of the Brawley Town Council for the years he served as a councilman (1964-1968); correspondence internal to the city about a variety of matters such as promotions in the police and fire departments and planning projects.
    The fourth series is tangential to the rest of the collection because it deals with Yellen's medical philosophy and practice. This series is organized into two subseries: A) Correspondence, and B) Medical Malpractice Suit.
    The first subseries is arranged chronologically and contains the earliest correspondence in the collection. Beginning in the 1940s, Yellen wrote numerous letters to medical journals and other doctors explaining and advocating his habit of compounding prescriptions, that is, writing complex prescriptions patients or pharmacists would put together as substitutes for more expensive packaged brand name drugs. In fact, his first crusade was against the pharmaceutical manufacturers who charged high prices for drugs he compounded cheaply. Within this subseries are letters reflecting the day to day nature of his medical practice, as well as his relationship with other physicians in the area.
    In December of 1981, Yellen's insistence on compounding drugs got him into trouble when a two-year old boy died in his care. The second subseries contains the correspondence, arranged chronologically, surrounding the "Medical Malpractice Suit," Travis Kavanaugh vs Ben Yellen, and Yellen's subsequent countersuits. The legal documents relating to these proceedings are also included.
    The BIOGRAPHICAL MATERIALS series contains select documents, such as a copy of Yellen's birth certificate, photographs, a folder of personal correspondence, and a collection of secondary articles about him including a transcript of his appearance on the television show 60 Minutes in 1973.
    Accession Processed in 2006
    The accession processed in 2006 contains materials that supplement those found in the first and largest accession. Materials include correspondence, legal documents, medical records, personal ephemera, photographs, newspaper clippings, and audiorecordings. The series titles and arrangement mirror those of the first accession. The NEWSPAPER CLIPPINGS and AUDIORECORDINGS series are unique to the second accession and provide important documentation of Yellen's public role and image.
    The YELLOWSHEETS AND LETTERS TO THE EDITOR series offers a small sampling of the pamphlets and letters Yellen produced for public consumption. They document the core of Yellen's political beliefs and activities. They are particularly notable for the attacks Yellen undertook against prominent politicians and residents of Imperial Valley. Both the yellowsheets and letters to the editor are arranged chronologically.
    The second series on FARMWORKERS contains primarily Yellen's correspondence on behalf of braceros in Imperial Valley, as well as a few medical records. The series is in alphabetical order.
    WATER AND RELATED POLITICAL ACTIVITIES is a more extensive series holding samples of Yellen's correspondence. Additionally, a sample of receipts provides a hint at the amount of money Yellen spent on such things as paper for printing yellowsheets and radio and newspaper advertising during his campaigns for political office. This series is also in alphabetical order.
    The fourth series, MEDICAL ISSUES, is the most extensive portion of the accession. It begins with Yellen's General Medical Correspondence, pertaining mostly to his practice of compounding prescriptions. The bulk of the series is made up of documents relating to his medical malpractice suit which began in 1981. There is a subseries of notes and papers that appear to have come from his lawyer's office. Another subseries is dedicated to Annabelle Hillock's Notes about the case against Yellen and his hearing before the Board of Medical Quality Assurance. Hillock was a friend of Yellen who assisted him in his pro per actions to defend himself against the accusation of malpractice and subsequently to regain his license. The final subseries consists of Legal Documents filed in the malpractice case. The series and subseries are all arranged alphabetically.
    The BIOGRAPHICAL MATERIALS series offers a variety of materials including personal correspondence, documentation of his death, as well as an extensive collection of photographs taken primarily early in Yellen's life. Also included are ephemera such as matchbook covers with Yellen's picture on them, rubber stamps with much used slogans, and Yellen's Physician's diary from the 1950s. The materials in this collection are in alphabetical order.
    Series six, NEWSPAPER CLIPPINGS, is made up of newspaper articles about Yellen collected between 1958 and 1994. These clippings provide a narrative to Yellen's life by documenting his public trials and triumphs. The clippings are a good place to begin to get a sense of the chronology of Yellen's life and his public impact.
    The final series, AUDIORECORDINGS, consists of audio tapes of a few of Yellen's public appearances. The most notable of which is his 60 Minutes appearance in 1973. These materials in are chronological order as their titles of sometimes unclear.


    Ben Yellen was born on July 2, 1907, in Brooklyn, New York, to Jake and Annie Yellen. He attended Boy's High School in Brooklyn, Columbia University and he graduated from Long Island College of Medicine, now called The University of the State of New York Medical School, in 1931. Given the economic conditions prevalent during the Depression, Yellen turned to the government for employment. For the next decade he worked as a physician for the Civilian Conservation Corps and served as a doctor in the Army. In 1942 he settled permanently in the town of Brawley in Imperial County, California. He chose Brawley largely for its warm, dry climate, which he thought would be beneficial for his health. Once settled in Imperial Valley Yellen found himself in one of the richest and most productive agricultural regions in the United States. Roughly a decade and a half after his arrival in Brawley Yellen initiated a protracted battle against the large-scale growers who dominated the region's economy and their representative institutions, including the Desert Growers Association and, especially, the Imperial Irrigation District.
    At the time of his arrival in Brawley, Yellen joined the local medical society and established his own practice. He drew his patients primarily from the lower segments of Imperial Valley's economic system. His treatment of braceros (i.e., Mexican migrant farm workers) led him into the political activities that would occupy the last four decades of his life. In 1956, at the age of 49, Yellen began agitating against the big growers and brought suit against them and the Continental Life Insurance Company for defrauding migrant workers of their medical insurance benefits. This activity led to his expulsion from the Imperial Valley Medical Society in 1959 on the charges that his early morning addresses to migrant workers informing them of their insurance benefits were unethical attempts to build his own practice at the cost of the physicians hired to treat the braceros. Yellen continued to practice medicine independently, but his relationship with Brawley's Pioneer Memorial Hospital remained strained for the rest of his lifetime. Around 1959 or 1960 Yellen's attitude towards the braceros shifted, and he focused his writings and attentions on the domestic farm workers displaced by Mexican immigrants.
    Although Yellen never abandoned his concern for farm workers, in 1961 his interests shifted as he expanded his attack on the big growers. At this time he embarked on the crusade for which he is most well known-- the lawsuits to enforce the Reclamation Law of 1902. The central case in this effort was the United States vs the Imperial Irrigation District in which Ben Yellen and 123 other citizens of Imperial County acted as amicus curiae, pushing the case through the legal system. In 1980 the Supreme Court ruled in this case that the Reclamation Law did apply in Imperial Valley and that all growers receiving federal irrigation water were restricted to 160 acres per person in the household. Before this ruling could take effect however, California Senator Alan Cranston passed an amendment in the last days of the session that year exempting Imperial Valley from the Reclamation Law, thereby nullifying the Supreme Court decision and Yellen's greatest victory.
    In addition to his legal activities, Yellen actively engaged in local electoral politics beginning in the 1960s and continuing into the 1990s. Throughout these three decades, Yellen ran for almost every conceivable local office, always on a platform of restricting the power and influence of the big growers for the benefit of the "little guy." In 1964, in his only electoral success, Yellen won a four-year term as a Brawley city councilman. To get his views across to the public, Yellen distributed thousands of his own mimeographed newsletters, locally termed "yellowsheets" because of the yellow paper he used. With a canvas bag thrown over his shoulder, Yellen paced the streets of Imperial Valley placing thousands of yellowsheets on car seats or under windshield wipers. Yellen's pamphleteering lessened in the 1970s as his health and mobility declined; as a result he increasingly relied on local newspapers to publish his "letters to the editor" to disseminate his political ideas.
    During the final decade of his life, Yellen found himself in a new battle as the result of a malpractice suit following the death of a two-year old boy he injected with a compounded prescription. Although he was ultimately cleared of wrong doing in the boy's death, his medical license was revoked by the state of California on November 16, 1983. He spent the remainder of his life trying to regain his license. In 1987 he succeeded, but the Board of Medical Quality Assurance placed so many restrictions on his return to medicine that he never resumed an active practice.
    In 1993 farm workers reappeared as the focus of Yellen's attention when he initiated a lawsuit against Attorney General Janet Reno to stop the flow of illegal Mexican immigrants who took jobs from domestic farm workers. The suit never amounted to anything due to Yellen's death the following year.
    Yellen died in his home in Brawley on July 1, 1994, one day before he would have turned 87.

    Preferred Citation

    Ben Yellen Papers, MSS 193. Mandeville Special Collections Library, UCSD.

    Acquisition Information

    Not Available


    The recordings in the collection are restricted. Researchers must request user copies be produced. Medical records in boxes 5, 34, 38-43 are restricted.

    Subjects and Indexing Terms

    All-American Canal System (U.S.).
    Continental Life Insurance Co.
    Desert Growers Assoc
    Imperial Irrigation District (Calif.)
    Taylor, Paul Schuster, 1895-1984
    Yellen, Ben, 1907- -- Archives
    Yellen, Ben, 1907- -- Trials, litigation, etc.
    Agricultural laborers--California, Southern
    Brawley (Calif.)
    Foreign workers, Mexican -- Imperial Valley (Calif. and Mexico)
    Imperial County (Calif.)
    Imperial Valley (Calif. and Mexico)
    Irrigation water--California, Southern
    Migrant labor--California, Southern
    Physicians--United States--Biography
    Political activists--United States--Biography
    Reclamation of land--Law and legislation--California, Southern
    Water resources development--California, Southern--Finance
    Water rights--California, Southern--History
    Water transfer--California, Southern
    Water-supply--California, Southern