HYDE PARK — At 90, Chicago’s most outspoken and progressive physician, Dr. Quentin Young, is finally starting to slow down and reflect on the neighborhood that gave him his politics.
A lifelong Hyde Parker, Young has been a tireless advocate for a single-payer health care system and counted among his patients Mayor Harold Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama.
“I grew up in Hyde Park, which was a big step forward,” Young said at a Tuesday reading from the new biography of his life, “Everybody In, Nobody Out,” at the Seminary Cooperative Bookstore, 5751 S. Woodlawn Ave.
He said the progressive politics that inspired him to work in a Black Panthers clinic and march with King were more a product of geography than a hard-fought revelation.
“I had the good fortune of being surrounded by progressive people,” Young said of growing up in Hyde Park during the Great Depression when there were still more than 100 outspoken communists in the neighborhood.
In 90 years, Young only moved out of Hyde Park once to enlist in the Army during World War II.
Young graduated medical school at Northwestern University after returning from the war. He spent the bulk of his career at Cook County Hospital and running a practice in Hyde Park, where he treated Barack Obama, who he counts as a liberal, but not a progressive politician.
“He’s an unusual person, but I think it’s important to understand he’s not an American black,” Young said of Obama, who grew up in Hawaii the son of a mother from Kansas and a father from Kenya. “I think it’s fair to say he’s a black American, but there’s no slavery in his background — he didn’t have the African American experience.”
Young said his experience at Cook County Hospital from 1947 to 1981 helped him to understand the feeling of being connected to something you can’t claim as your own.
“The county hospital played a pivotal role in the black community, and they really thought it was theirs — it wasn’t theirs, it belonged to the Democratic Party,” Young said.
He said the majority of his patients were African American and Cook County Hospital delivered 95 percent of all African American babies in the city, but claimed it was a tool for the Democratic Party to segregate black patients as much as serve them.
Young has spent the last 25 years fighting for a single-payer health care system and only in the last few years has really begun to reflect on his life.
Sonja Rotenberg, president of the Illinois Single-Payer Coalition, said Young didn’t begin to scale back his role on the board until he turned 88 years old.
“He was still going into the office every day until two years ago,” Rotenberg said.
As Young has more time to reflect, lots of admirers have moved in to collect his stories.
“Being King’s physician when he was in Chicago, he’s really proud of that,” said Allan Nowakowski, who was at the reading shooting a documentary about Young’s life.
Young was beside Martin Luther King during the 1966 march in Marquette Park where King was struck with a brick.
“I received the honor of looking after King during the march,” Young said. “He took a rock to the head and had to be sewn up.”
Nowakowski said he as 30 hours of footage of Young talking about intimate moments as a physician to some of the biggest names to come out of Chicago, from former Mayor Harold Washington to writers like Studs Terkel and Mike Royko.
“He was always very sarcastic with me and never liked my leftist ideas,” Young said of Royko. “Studs would at least listen to me.”
Young’s biography, written with Steve Fiffer, was released in September and Tuesday was Young’s last night of reflection in Hyde Park before going to visit his children in California for the winter.
Nowakowski shot the final scenes of the documentary of Young at the Tuesday reading and will be editing all winter in preparation for a summer release of the final film on Young’s life.