Rachelle Slobodinsky Yarros

5-18-1869 to 3-17-1946

A physician and reformer, Yarros was born at Berdechev near Kiev, Russia, the daughter of Joachim and Bernice Slobodinsky. Her family was well-to-do, but at 18, having received a preliminary education in Russian schools, she joined a subversive political society and was obliged to flee from the Czarist police to the United States. Arriving in New York in the late 1880s, she supported herself at first by working at a sewing machine in a sweatshop. Moving to Boston, she met a fellow countryman, the journalist and philosophical anarchist Victor S. Yarros, to whom she was married on July 18, 1894. They had no children of their own but eventually adopted a daughter, Elise Donaldson.

Even before their marriage Yarros had urged her to continue her education, and in 1890 Rachelle Slobodinsky entered the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Boston, the first woman admitted. After a year she enrolled in the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania, receiving the M.D. Degree in 1893. She interned for a year at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Boston, and then took postdoctoral work in pediatrics at the New York infirmary for Women and Children and at the Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago. In 1895 she began obstetric and gynecological practice in Chicago while her husband followed a career in journalism and the law.

Establishing herself in the medical profession, Rachelle Yarros in 1897 was appointed instructor in clinical obstetrics in the "College of Physicians and Surgeons," a clinical staff associated on a part-time, unsalaried basis with medical school of the University of Illinois. Advanced to associate professorship five years later, she continued in this post until 1926. She was a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons, an associate director of the Chicago Lying-In Hospital, and for a time president of the West Side Branch of the Chicago Medical Society. In 1908, in addition to her other activities, she became director of an obstetrical dispensary on Chicago's West Side.

This conviction found expression in a reform career which gradually supplanted her medical practice. The two causes with which she became most closely identified were social hygiene and birth control. The social hygiene movement, and effort to eradicate prostitution and venereal disease through education and legislation, won her enthusiastic support from the first. A founder of the American social Hygiene Association in 1914, she became vice president of the Illinois Social Hygiene League when it was created a year later. She directed social hygiene programs for the Chicago Health Department and the Illinois Board of Health, headed the social hygiene committee of the General Federation of Women's Club, served a special consultant to the venereal diseases division of the United States Public Health Service, and in 1920's lecture widely to Y. W. C. A. groups on the subject. Her leadership in this field was recognized in 1926 when the University of Illinois medical school appointed her to a special professorship in social hygiene on its clinical staff, a post she held until her retirement in 1939.

The rising birth rate, in Dr. Yarros' opinion, was the source of a "all kinds of social ills and disorders," and a down 1915 she persuaded the Chicago Woman's Club (to the she belonged) to establish a birth control committee. From this there soon involved evolved theIllinois Birth Control League, of which she was director for many years. In 1923, at the urging of Margaret Sanger (d.1966), she opened in a thickly populated Chicago neighborhood the nation's second birth control clinic.

But these reforms in turn depended not merely on the spread of technical information but on a changed attitude toward sex, especially among women; and, beyond that, on the general redefinition of Woman's place in the world. To this end Dr. Yarros published her book, Modern Woman and Sex (1933; reissued in 1938 as Sex Problems in Modern Society). Juvenile delinquency and liberalization of divorce laws were among the many other causes to which she was drawn. There seemed no end to the chain of social amelioration; one reform depended on another; all were equally relevant.

such versatility was characteristic of the first generation of professional women; the very question of their pursuing careers at all was a burning social issue which made indifference to similar issues impossible. Mrs. Yarros took it as axiomatic that "the physician is also a citizen," that he should "not be ignorant of economics, of political science, of history, a philosophical ethics, of literature," in that he would as a matter of course "sympathize with labor, with victims of exploitation and industrial autocracy, with the juvenile and adult delinquents-products of slums." A religious agnostic, in politics she was a Socialist who later became "a half apologetic pragmatist." Unlike other Russian émigrés, she admired the Soviet Union, to which she and her husband made visits in 1930, 1936, the 1939. She was particularly impressed with the venereological institute at Moscow-"the kind of institution I have dreamed of for many years"-and with the measures by which the Bolsheviks had "practically done away with commercialized prostitution." Although uneasy about evidences of increasing police control, she did not linger over the darker side of life in Stalinist Russia. "My friends," she once wrote, "... Like to think of me as an optimist, a believer in life and in the joy of life...."

After suffering a heart attack in 1939, Rachelle Yarros lived for two years in Winter Park, Florida, and then moved to La Jolla, California, in 1941. She died in San Diego, California, of congestive heart failure and coronary heart disease; her remains were cremated. Her husband survived her.


Article published in "Notable American Women" Volume III
written by Christopher Lasch and ©1971 by Radcliffe College
Buy the current edition of "Notable American Women"


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