Interview with Dr. David Smith

The Father of the Free Clinic Movement Reflects on his Legacy

by Scott Carroll

     “I remember some Berkeley students came to talk to me, in 1968 or ‘69 about starting a free clinic in Berkeley,” said Dr. David Smith as he walked through the entryway of the BFC the other week.  “I gave them all the material I had, so they could repeat what we had done.”  

     In the late 1960’s Smith was a lecturer at UC Berkeley, and very well known as the founder of the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic.  The Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic had opened in 1967, the year of the “Summer of Love,” in the heart of the counterculture community of San Francisco. Its founding is considered the beginning of the modern secular free clinic movement.  

     “I believe they were students in my class,” Smith recalls. “A lot of people were coming to ask how we had started the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic,” he said, and he tried to give everyone all they needed to know to start their own.

Dr. Smith's RECENt visit to the Berkeley Free Clinic L to R: Raj (IRC), Scott (Phleb), Dr. Smith, John (GMHC), Jon (IRC), Clay (Dental)

Dr. Smith's RECENt visit to the Berkeley Free Clinic
L to R: Raj (IRC), Scott (Phleb), Dr. Smith, John (GMHC), Jon (IRC), Clay (Dental)

     Berkeley, like the Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, had seen a huge influx of young people moving to the area in the 1960’s as part of the social and political movements of the time, and existing resources were not equipped, and in many cases not willing, to deal with the health issues of many in the population. “We saw over 100 people in our first day,” Smith says.

     Unmet health needs were not unique to the newly arrived youth of the Bay Area and many quickly recognized the model as a tool to address health concern in many other populations and regions.  “There were all kinds of free clinics in the early years  -  some were clinics like ours, and others were political clinics, Black Panther Free Clinics, and the little red book free clinics.”  Many clinics were just small communities trying to meet the local service needs.  In the first years of the free clinic movement over 200 free clinics opened up across the US and Canada.  Smith tells the story of the first free clinic conference, and many of the medical staff from clinics around the country arrived thinking it would be like a standard shirt and tie type of medical conference -- “Then the caravans of psychedelic school buses started pulling into the parking lot.”  

     “I remember giving a talk at one conference,” he recalls, “and as I was speaking a fully naked group joined me on stage to make a statement of some sort.”

     Smith is now 78 years old, personable and sharp, and a practicing physician who specializes in the management of chemical addiction in San Francisco and the East Bay. Since the founding of the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic he has held many local and statewide positions in policy and service provision.  When he visited the Berkeley Free Clinic, he was wearing a blue blazer with a Star Trek medical pin on the lapel (Scott “Scottosaurus” Wilkinson, a lifelong sci-fi fan, would have appreciated that touch).

     In a recent talk Smith stressed that the use of the word “free” in the founding of the Free Clinic Movement didn’t just mean free of cost: it also meant free from judgement and social paradigms that can limit access to care.  In San Francisco in the mid-1960’s the Diggers were proponents of these concepts of free and the separation of services from money - creating free food programs, free temporary housing, free concerts, and free transportation among other things. David Smith was inspired by this for starting the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic.  

     In the East Bay, the Berkeley Free Church was founded, and between 1967 and 1972 it ran similar services under the direction of its pastor, Reverend Richard York, who was one of the first board members of the Berkeley Free Clinic.  The Free Church building on the corner of Fulton and Parker Streets in Berkeley, which is now the Empty Gate Zen Center, was where the first Berkeley Free Clinic medical services were offered in May of 1969.

     Smith said he was very happy to have the opportunity to tour our facility and pleased to see us continuing to be a volunteer-run organization, training community members to provide services.  He was impressed with the breadth of services in our small space.  “It’s good to see you’re still here!”