Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, as it was described in 1967
By David Pearlman, The San Francisco Chronicle, March 10, 2017
When kids from all over the country flocked to San Francisco for the Summer of Love five decades ago, the Haight was a street bazaar for drugs. The only medical help for sick and badly stoned youngsters was a cool walk-up place called the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic. Founded by Dr. David E. Smith, who was then a young physician at the city’s official drug abuse center, the free clinic was staffed by volunteers but quickly ran out of medicine, doctors and equipment.
I wrote an article for The Chronicle about the clinic’s emergency at the height of the Summer of Love, and the rest is history.
“We couldn’t have survived without that article,” Smith says now.
Here is the original June 17, 1967 story:
A new clinic, still woefully short of volunteer physicians and nurses, is operating in the Haight-Ashbury.
In barely a week the word has spread fast, and already the clinic is crowded each night with sick and sometimes frantic youngsters seeking help.
It is part of “Happening House,” a venture designed to offer culture activities, education and medical care to the hippies of the New Community.
Happening House has been founded with the help of a group of San Francisco State College faculty members, and the cooperation of leaders in the hippie world. Private donations pay the rent.
The Clinic and Happening House are located in an old upstairs flat at 558 Clayton St. It once housed a suite of dentists’ offices, and its big old-fashioned bay windows look out on the action at the corner of Clayton and Haight.
The night-time scene outside is full of sound and potential violence: a barefoot girl is questioned by police for panhandling: hunting for sex, three sailors gawk at the hippies; a trio of tribal types walk by, beads dangling, ankle bells tinkling; one whacks a tambourine, and the rhythm penetrates into the clinic.
Dr. David Smith, director of the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Screening Unit at San Francisco General Hospital, devotes three hours and more of his own time each night as the volunteer Medical Director of the new clinic. He can call on eight other volunteer doctors for scheduled service and 10 registered nurses.
With 30 patients a day and more coming all the time, he could use twice as much man power.
With its bilious Victorian green walls and sparse furniture, the clinic could be any pad in the Haight-Ashbury. A radio plays rock music. A coffee pot steams. Kids, the boys mostly bearded, squat on the floors: many are stoned — turned inward to their private layers of drug-peeled consciousness. The girls look particularly frightened; some are very young, runaways perhaps; many have come with vaginal infections, and fear far worse. An occasional older alcoholic stumbles in, cut and bruised.
The volunteer nurses are in street clothes; one, almost fainting from overwork, is barefoot. They are patient, sympathetic, rushed. They keep a medical record on each patient. It is simple and wholly confidential. One question is only two word: “Drug history?”
Dr. Smith comments: “The surveys talk about the incidence of drug use among young people — 20 percent they say, use marijuana; 5 percent for LSD.
“Here the figure is 100 percent. I haven’t seen a kid in the clinic who hasn’t used drugs, and most are using them right now. Marijuana, methedrine, DMT, LSD, and now the new one, STP.
“We want to tackle the drug problem here now. Not just by helping the kids come down from a bad trip, but by recruiting volunteer psychologists and psychiatrists for a serious after-care program that will follow up every patient. We’ll do it if we get the volunteers.”
Bob Conrich, 30, a bespectacled former private investigator who “dropped out of business to do something constructive,” manages the clinic. He keeps a card file on quiet citizens in the straight world who are willing to be called at any hour of the night when a youngster needs fast transport to a hospital. He helps recruit doctors. He keeps book on the medicine.
Conrich wears hippie clothes’ — the colorful shirt, the necklace — but his hair is short. He knows the kids:
“They’re confused, searching young people whose immaturity has led them into the drug world,” he says. “They’re alienated from all the structures of society — from schools and families and even the world of straight jobs.”
He discussed, the other night, a plan to launch dental services because so many of the clinic patients have such serious dental problems. Many haven’t seen a toothbrush since they left home.
A local dentist dropped in committed; he had served in the farm workers’ union clinic in Delano, now he wants to volunteer here.
The dentist and Conrich debate the best way to scrounge a dental chair, and oxygen equipment, and the drills and tools that will be needed. The clinic is lucky because the right kind of plumbing is already installed, left over from the flat’s more prosperous days as a private dental office.
Conrich riffles through the night’s clinic business: A boy with cuts and burns; he’s vague about how it happened, but the injuries need simple treatment. A half dozen serious respiratory infections; they’re common these cold nights. Several severely sore toes — athlete’s foot. Abdominal rashes, migraine headaches.
There are plenty of VD cases — they are referred quickly to the city’s veneral disease clinic at 33 Hunt St. The worried patients go there willingly, because the VD clinic is “cool” — non punitive, eager only to help.
A man, no youngster, comes in overwhelmed by acute, desperate anxiety. He has been on a drug trip for three straight weeks — LSD, weed, speed, bunnies, the works, all at once; he’s malnourished, too. Tranquilizers start his treatment.
A girl is worried by a mole on her shoulder that has begun to change. Dr. Smith phones Children’s Hospital now because she feels terrible and plans to hitch hike to New York in the morning.
Dr. Smith examines her with extra care. He asks Bobs Conrich: Do we have any injectable penicillin? There is only one ampule in the clinic. Dr. Smith uses it swiftly, tells Conrich to hustle a volunteer with a car, and calls San Francisco General Hospital.
“The girl doesn’t have a cold,” Dr. Smith says. “It’s a left lower lobe pneumonia, and it could flare up virulently. If that child started hitch hiking now she’d collapse. Untreated, she could die.”
The clinic goes on and on, hour after hour. The kids wait their turns patiently, worried. Dr. Smith won’t be through until almost midnight. Nor will the nurses.
Conrich talks about the urgent needs at 858 Clayton: for doctors’ drug samples, for dental equipment, above all for more volunteer physicians and nurses.
The clinic phone number is 431-1714; it operates for emergencies and phone consultations 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Medical clinic hours are 8 p.m. on, seven nights a week.
A young boy interrupts: He’s been hallucinating for almost three days now. And it’s a bad trip. Conrich calms him, Dr. Smith will help him soon. The boy wanders through the clinic rooms.
“I can’t afford to get busted,” the boy says softly.
“Look man,” says Conrich, “I’m cool. Don’t worry.”
“But what about the doc?” asks the boy.
“He’s the coolest man that ever wore a tie,” Conrich says. “Look, don’t you understand, if we weren’t cool here nobody would come!
“We’re here to take care of people, not to get them busted.”
The boy quiets downs, smiles and sits.
“Groovy,” he says.
The clinic’s address: 558 Clayton street, corner of Haight. The phone: 431-1714.
David Perlman is The San Francisco Chronicle’s science editor. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
For more stories about the Summer of Love as The Chronicle commemorates its 50th anniversary this year, visit www.sfchronicle.com/summer-of-love.
To order copies of The Chronicle’s premium magazine on the Summer of Love, go to www.sfchronicle.com/summeroflovemag.