6 Ways Yale University Has Changed the World

As the third-oldest university in the USA, and one of the best-known and most prestigious universities in the world, Yale University has had an outsize impact on the world.

It’s educated four US presidents, produced countless major scientific discoveries, and more besides. In this article, we take a look at the diverse ways that Yale University has changed the world in the centuries since its foundation.

1. Medical discoveries made there have enabled us to tackle autoimmune diseases

Image shows a lymphocyte
The function of t-cells used to be only partly understood.

Autoimmune diseases are diseases where the autoimmune system mistakenly attacks the body. This diverse group of diseases ranges from coeliac disease and rheumatoid arthritis to hepatitis and psoriasis. In the early 1970s, it was understood that T-cells – a type of white blood cell – played a crucial role in the body’s immune system, in the context of fighting infection. What wasn’t understood is that a particular kind of T-cells perform a different function, namely to suppress the body’s immune response as required.

This insight came about as a result of the work of Dr Richard Gershon, Professor of immunology and pathology at Yale School of Medicine. When these T-cells are overactive, the body’s immune response is suppressed too much, leaving the individual vulnerable to infection. But in the case of autoimmune diseases where the immune system attacks the body instead of pathogens, manipulating these regulatory T-cells can help to suppress the immune response and offer the individual some respite from their symptoms.

This is only one of many medical discoveries of worldwide significance made at Yale. Others, from the history of the Yale School of Medicine, include the first use of chemotherapy for cancer, a treatment which has been considerably responsible for the revolution in cancer survival rates in the late 20th and 21st centuries; the development of the first insulin infusion pump for diabetics, making management of this potentially life-threatening disease much easier; and the discovery of how polio is transmitted, which paved the way for the Salk vaccine and the near-eradication of polio, a disease that has existed for most of human history but which became increasingly dangerous with the growth of cities in the 19th century.

2. It’s where Bill and Hillary Clinton met

Image shows Bill and Hillary Clinton holding hands and waving at a crowd.
Bill and Hillary’s personal and political partnership has been hugely influential.

Whatever your opinion may be of their politics, it’s undoubtedly the case that the partnership of Bill and Hillary Clinton shaped the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st. Bill Clinton was one of four US Presidents educated at Yale; he also studied at Georgetown University and the University of Oxford. Bill Clinton was the first Democrat since Roosevelt to be elected for a second term, and also had the highest end-of-office approval ratings of any president since Roosevelt, irrespective of party. He presided over an astonishing period of economic growth during his presidency.

But that’s not to say that his presidency was without controversy. Clinton’s policy of financial deregulation faced criticism from the left, while the Republican Party criticised his spending on welfare programmes. The low point of his presidency was his impeachment following an affair with 22-year-old intern Monica Lewinsky; Clinton was 52 at the time, and faced accusations of obstructing the course of justice as he tried to cover up the affair, though he was ultimately acquitted.

Bill Clinton met Hillary Rodham at Yale Law School, where they were both studying for their Juris Doctor; their first meeting was in the Yale Law Library. These two ambitious students were rapidly inseparable and married in 1975. As First Lady, Hillary Clinton sought to use her influence for healthcare reform and to advocate for gender equality. A politician in her own right, she became the first female Senator from New York in 2000, and Secretary of State in 2009. In 2016, she won the Democratic nomination for President, but lost the election to Donald Trump.

There’s no doubt that Hillary was an asset to Bill in his presidential election campaigns; he told supporters that his slogan could have been “buy one, get one free”. But it’s arguable that the opposite was true for Hillary; she was held responsible in her presidential election campaigns for all her husband’s failings, and being married to a former president made her undeniably part of the political establishment. Had that meeting in Yale Law Library never happened, the past 30 years in politics might have looked quite different.

3. It’s shaped our understanding of dinosaurs and their evolution

Image shows an apatosaurus skeleton.
The apatosaurus was just one of the many dinosaurs discovered by Othniel Marsh.

Othniel Marsh, born 1831, was Professor of vertebrate palaeontology at Yale University – the first professor of palaeontology in the USA. Marsh’s impact on early palaeontology was huge; coming from a wealthy family, he used his sizeable inheritance to fund fossil-hunting expeditions. He and his small army of fossil-hunters identified around 500 new species, which Marsh named; he also coined the names for no fewer than 32 dinosaur genera, shaping our view of their classification. Five dinosaurs have also been named in his honour after his death.

Marsh’s story is also testament to the impact that academic competition can have. He competed against Edward Drinker Cope in what has become known as the Bone Wars or Great Dinosaur Rush, to see who could find and classify the most fossils. The two men identified 136 dinosaur species between them, Marsh finding 80 and Cope finding 56. Each of them produced an astonishing quantity of scientific papers over the course of their competition, and were both close to financial ruin as a result of their spending on fossil-hunting.

Unsurprisingly, the contest – and the underhanded methods that both Marsh and Cope were prepared to resort to – caught the public attention, raising interest in what might otherwise have been a relatively dry subject. Marsh also persuaded his wealthy uncle, George Peabody, to fund the establishment of Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History – with Marsh’s finds forming the foundation of the collection.

The speed at which Marsh and Cope worked in order to try to beat each other to new fossils sometimes resulted in errors. The reason you might have heard two words used for the same dinosaur – brontosaurus and apatosaurus – is because of a foolish error by Marsh, leading to him classifying the same dinosaur as two different species. Yet Marsh and Cope’s determination to win their contest led to new discoveries at an astonishing speed and advanced palaeontology in a way that might not have been possible without their rivalry.

4. It’s changed our view of human nature

Image shows a black-and-white photo of Adolf Eichmann on trial.
Milgram’s experiment was inspired by the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.

After the horrors of the Holocaust, psychologists became increasingly interested in understanding what might cause people to do harm to others, particularly in the context of not wanting to cause harm, but doing so in obedience to an order. One such psychologist, then assistant professor at Yale, was Stanley Milgram, whose interest had been sparked by the trial of Adolf Eichmann, who was responsible for Jewish deportations to extermination camps during the Holocaust.

Three months after the trial began, Milgram set up his now-famous experiment into obedience. A series of volunteers were told that they were taking part in an experiment on memory and learning, to find out the impact of punishment on someone’s ability to memorise facts. The volunteers were not told that they were themselves in fact the subjects of the experiment, and that it was not about memorisation, but obedience.

The volunteer was given the role of “teacher”, while believing that the role of “learner” was taken by another volunteer (in fact an actor). The teacher saw the learner being strapped into a chair in an adjacent room. The learner was then asked questions, and the experimenter instructed the teacher to administer electric shocks to the learner if they got answers wrong. The shocks were fake, but the teacher had no way of knowing this; they were unable to see the learner. The strength of the shocks increased in increments, and as they grew stronger, the teacher was played audio of the learner’s protests – cries of pain, banging on the wall between the rooms, and finally, falling silent. If the teacher objected to causing the learner pain, the experimenter pressed them to continue. If they objected four times, then the experiment was ended. The highest level of shock was marked “danger” and by the time it was administered, the learner would apparently have been silent – implicitly unconscious – for some time.

Many of the volunteers were obviously uncomfortable during the experiment, but all administered shocks up to 300 volts (by which point they would have heard two agonised screams from the learner, complaints of a heart condition, and repeated calls to “let me out!”) and 65% went all the way up to the final, 450-volt shock. The results were perceived as horrifying, demonstrating the harm people are willing to inflict rather than oppose an authority figure. While criticisms have been raised of the experiment – not least in relation to the ethics of the consent given by the volunteers – it has nonetheless caused a widespread reassessment of the extremes to which apparently good people are willing to go.

5. It’s contributed to the modern view of gender

Image shows a portrait photo of Judith Butler.
Judith Butler’s work is relatively recent, but has already had an impact.

Cultural and societal views of gender in the West have evolved significantly over the past fifty years, and a key driving force behind this is Judith Butler, who received her BA and DPhil from Yale before going on to teach at assorted different universities.

In her groundbreaking work Gender Trouble, Butler theorised that the categories and terms of sex, gender and sexuality, all of which vary in definition throughout time and between cultures, are culturally constructed. That’s not to say that these are deliberately chosen constructs, but instead that through repetitions, the performance of sex, gender and sexuality has become established and self-reinforcing, with society acting to punish or censure people who for whatever reason don’t perform these constructs as expected. This and her subsequent works have laid the foundation for much of what is now referred to as queer theory; an area that goes beyond gender and sexuality to explore how cultures respond to perceived deviations from the norm.

Unsurprisingly, Butler’s theories have been as controversial as they have been influential. Before becoming Pope, Benedict XVI included several pages in his book disagreeing with Butler. Alongside her arguments themselves, she’s also been criticised for her undoubtedly difficult prose style. All the same, the fact that it’s now generally accepted that gender is distinct from sex and culturally constructed – although the idea that sex is similarly performative and constructed has further to go in gaining acceptance – demonstrates the impact that Butler’s theories have had since Gender Trouble was published 30 years ago.

6. It shaped American sports culture

Image shows the Yale Bowl, full of spectators.
At the time of its construction, the Yale Bowl was the largest stadium in the world.

Many of the traditions of American universities were taken wholesale from older British institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge. But the tradition of college sports that exists in the USA has no equivalent. While sport is undoubtedly important in universities elsewhere, and the Boat Race is a cherished tradition in particular, American college sports hold a much greater significance, and the influence of Yale has been crucial in this.

A true ‘Yale Man’ in the 19th century was supposed to be skilled academically and athletically, as part of the Victorian doctrine of a healthy mind in a healthy body. Yale alumnus Walter Camp, who was head football coach there from 1888 to 1892, is known as the “Father of American Football” for his role in reshaping the game from a variant on rugby to the distinctive sport in its own right.

Early games of American football were often so dangerous to players’ health that surgeons were on hand to operate on players if needed; innovations led by Yale in the rules helped to make the games significantly safer and reduced the number of injuries. The university also encouraged its students in their sporting enthusiasms by providing them with the facilities they needed; in 1914, the Yale Bowl was completed, becoming the largest stadium built since the Colosseum in Rome. And it isn’t just in football that Yale has led among American universities; 107 Olympic medals have been won by Yale graduates, including 51 gold medals.

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Image credits: t-cell; Bill and Hillary Clinton; apatosaurus; Eichmann; Butler; Yale Bowl.