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Ben Yellen Papers
MSS 0193  
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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Related Materials
  • Scope and Content of Collection
  • Biography
  • Preferred Citation
  • Acquisition Information
  • Restrictions

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: Ben Yellen Papers
    Identifier/Call Number: MSS 0193
    Contributing Institution: Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego
    9500 Gilman Drive
    La Jolla, California, 92093-0175
    Languages: English
    Physical Description: 18.0 Linear feet (45 archives boxes and 9 oversize folders)
    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, 1907-1994

    Related Materials

    Ben Yellen Correspondence with Charles L. Smith (MSS 667); Ben Yellen Correspondence with Arthur Brunwasser (MSS 305); Yellen Versus Imperial Irrigation District Collection (MSS 677).

    Scope and Content of Collection

    The Ben Yellen Papers document grassroots social and political activism on the subjects of farm labor and western water policy. Yellen's papers encompass a variety of topics, including migrant farm workers, water policy, tax assessment, electricity rates, local politics, medical malpractice, and the compounding of prescriptions. Correspondence in each series is supported by an array of published materials, as well as government documents 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.
    Accessions Processed in 1996
    Accession Processed in 2006


    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 0193. Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego.

    Acquisition Information

    Acquired 1994-1997.


    Original sound recordings in the collection are restricted; researchers may 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.).
    Desert Growers Association.
    Imperial Irrigation District (Calif.).
    Taylor, Paul S. (Paul Schuster), 1895-1984
    Yellen, Ben, 1907-1994 -- Archives
    Yellen, Ben, 1907-1994 -- 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