Scope and Content of Collection
Title: Ben Yellen Papers
Identifier/Call Number: MSS 0193
Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego
9500 Gilman Drive
La Jolla, California, 92093-0175
18.0 Linear feet
(45 archives boxes and 9 oversize folders)
Date (inclusive): 1945 - 1994
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
Yellen, Ben, 1907-1994
Ben Yellen Correspondence with Charles L. Smith (MSS 667); Ben Yellen Correspondence with Arthur Brunwasser (MSS 305); Yellen
v. 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
Arranged in five series: 1) YELLOWSHEETS AND LETTERS TO THE EDITOR, 2) FARM WORKERS, 3) WATER AND RELATED POLITICAL ACTIVITIES,
4) MEDICAL ISSUES, and 5) BIOGRAPHICAL MATERIALS.
Accession Processed in 2006
Arranged in seven series: 6) YELLOWSHEETS AND LETTERS TO THE EDITOR, 7) FARMWORKERS, 8) WATER AND RELATED POLITICAL ACTIVITIES,
9) MEDICAL ISSUES, 10) BIOGRAPHICAL MATERIALS, 11) NEWSPAPER CLIPPINGS, and 12) SOUND RECORDINGS.
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: enforcement of the Reclamation Law of
1902. The central case in this effort was the United States v. the Imperial Irrigation District, in which Ben Yellen and 123
other residents of Imperial County acted as amicus curiae. The government had lost the original case in U.S. District Court,
and the Nixon administration decided not to pursue an appeal. Yellen retained attorney Arthur Brunwasser to intervene, file
an amicus brief, and appeal the adverse judgement. The Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals permitted intervention, and supported
the allegations of non-enforcement in 1977. In effect, the Court ruled that water from the Hoover Dam can't be used to irrigate
Imperial Valley farms that exceeded the 160-acre per person limit. Yellen's victory was short-lived, however. In Bryant v.
Yellen (1980), Yellen and Imperial County residents again brought suit to force IID compliance with the acreage restriction
provisions of the reclamation laws. Resolution of the case required legal review and analysis by the U.S. Supreme Court, which
held that the 160-acre limitation did not apply to certain private lands in the Imperial Valley, and recognized the IID as
a trustee of the water rights for the benefit of the landowners, without regard to the size of the land holding prior to the
enactment of the Boulder Canyon Project Act of 1929.
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
Ben Yellen Papers, MSS 193. Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego.
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 -- Correspondence
Yellen, Ben, 1907-1994 -- Archives
Yellen, Ben, 1907-1994 -- Trials, litigation, etc.
Agricultural laborers -- California, Southern
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