The Origin Story: In the words of Bill Dow

9780997043402Several years before he died, Bill Dow agreed to participate in recorded conversations about his farming philosophies, with the idea that he would use the recordings to compose a book about sustainable agriculture. He died in 2012, before the project was completed. But his friend, Fred Broadwell, and his companion and partner, Daryl Walker, have completed the book for him. Titled “What I Stand On” (from a line in a Wendell Berry poem), the book is available for order from your local independent bookseller.

A few wonderful Coalition stories are scattered throughout the text. Here, for example, see the Student Health Coalition Origin Story, in Bill’s own inimitable words.


When I was in medical school at Vanderbilt, you might say that I burned the backsides of some of the folks in the administration and faculty. I was unhappy, because there wasn’t much talk about real people, their situations and the social side of things. It was very academic. To be a good doctor, it’s not just a matter of blood counts and your level of cholesterol.

It was 1968. The medical school dean, John Chapman, came around to see me. He said, “There is an organization in New York called the Josiah Macy Foundation. It is going to put on a meeting to look at whether the radical medical students in America are going to take over the medical schools. Would you be interested in going?” I had never been to New York City and they were going to give me a ticket to go. Hmm. I didn’t think I was a radical medical student, but if I could go to New York, I said to myself, “Let’s go.”

There were fifteen of us— each from a different medical school around the country. Dean Chapman was right about what they wanted to know: were the radical medical students going to take over? Of course, it was a ludicrous question, because if you were a radical student, you wouldn’t have gotten in. If you became one when you were in there, they’d kick you out. So they were naïve.

But to make a long story short, they were indeed concerned about medical students causing trouble. For a payoff of a grant of twenty or thirty thousand charitable dollars to keep us off the streets, we would let the foundation “keep us out of trouble.” I didn’t mind being bribed. So before I left New York, I had hatched up an idea. We would use the money to find out about health conditions in rural areas, in my case rural Tennessee.

To figure out how and where to do a useful project, we first had to do some homework. The underserved population in East Tennessee was primarily white and lived back in the mountains. The underserved population in West Tennessee, on the other hand, was primarily agricultural and Black. We had one of the two Black medical schools in the country in Nashville; it was called Meharry. It was suggested that we work out some joint activities with them. We could do a survey to learn what was needed and what might be done. I said, “Fine.”

When I got back home, I started to make the project happen, rather than just talking about it. It took off.”

From:  Dow, Bill. What I Stand On: Practical Advice and Cantankerous Musings from a Pioneering Organic Farmer. 2016. Organic Leaf Press.