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U. S. Health Activism History Collection (Walter J. Lear U.S. Health Activism History Collection)

The U.S Health Activism History Collection is a group of archival collections centered on health care, health policy, and medical reform movements. Topics covered in these collections included poverty, civil rights, women's health, and many others. The original collector, Walter J. Lear (1923-2010), was a pioneering LGBT doctor and medical activist.

Walter J. Lear (1923-2010), from Philadelphia Gay News (2010)

Collection Overview

About the Collector

Walter J. Lear earned a medical degree from Long Island College of Medicine and a master's in hospital administration from Columbia University in 1948. After several years at the U.S. Public Health Service, Lear became Philadelphia's deputy city health commissioner in 1964. In 1971, he was appointed state regional health commissioner, and he later served as executive director of Philadelphia General Hospital. Lear came out as gay in 1975 and may have been the first openly gay public officer in Philadelphia.

Lear stated that he was introduced to medical activism in New York in October 1943, at a lecture with speakers including Morris Fishbein, of the Postwar Planning Committee of the American Medical Association, and J. Peters, of the Physicians' Committee to Improve Medical Practice, who addressed the state of medicine and medical care in the United States. Lear's notes about this event, on the back of a Ballet Theatre poster, are cataloged as Ms. Oversize 31.

Lear helped found and lead many groups, including: the Medical Committee for Human Rights; the Caucus of Gay and Lesbian Public Health Workers of the American Public Health Association (APHA); the Maternity Care Coalition of Greater Philadelphia; the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Philadelphia (now the William Way Center); the Sigerist Circle (progressive medical historians, named for Dr. Henry Sigerist); the National Gay Health Coalition; the Maternity Care Coalition of Greater Philadelphia; and the Philadelphia AIDS Task Force. Lear died in 2010 at age 87.

Collection History and Organization

Lear was a passionate advocate for health care reform, and he founded the Institute of Social Medicine and Community Health to study the history of health care advocacy and promote progressive health policy. He collected records and ephemera documenting health activism in the United States over the 20th century and donated these collections to the Penn Libraries beginning in 2005.

Known collectively as the U.S. Health Activism History Collection, these archival materials are arranged mainly by organization or, in some cases, under the name of a significant activist. Some collections assembled by others have been donated to the Kislak Center to continue the work of Walter Lear and to increase the scope of the U.S. Health Activism History Collection, and they are included in this guide.

Topics covered in the U.S. Health Activism History Collection include: health aspects of poverty; civil rights; labor; health services; national health policies; health and race and ethnicity; women's health; LGBT health; socialism; communism; and international peace movements.

Researchers should note that processing of the collections is ongoing. For more information about unprocessed materials or other questions, please contact Following is a list of cataloged collections, with links either to archival finding aids or to records in the online catalog, Franklin:


Collection Groups