GEORGE (SKIP) R. GAY, M.D. ’52
Skip Gay, our unconventional classmate in 1948-50, died in Anchorage, Alaska, Feb. 13, 2008.
Skip’s unusual career ultimately made him a living legend for his work among the rock music drug users in San Francisco. After two years at Amherst, Skip joined the U.S. Navy, flying as a combat air crewman. Returning to Amherst and graduating in 1956, he studied medicine at the Univ. of Missouri, trained in anesthesiology at Boston Children’s Hospital and afterward taught in the Univ. of Chicago medical school.
From there Skip’s career showed more of the free-spiritedness that we remember. “He was drawn to San Francisco,” wrote the Chronicle after Skip’s death “by the music scene surrounding the Summer of Love in 1967 and set up a private practice, but he was so captivated by the emerging hippie culture of the city that he closed his practice, sold his red Corvette and began volunteering full time at the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic.
“When starry-eyed hippies were succeeded by waves of young junkies wasted on heroin, Dr. Gay was in the forefront of warning about the danger. He developed techniques for treating heroin addicts at the Free Clinic—working closely with its founder (David Smith)—and started Rock Medicine with promoter Bill Graham in 1973 to care for patrons at Grateful Dead and Led Zeppelin concerts in Golden Gate Park.”
Another accolade appeared in the Oakland Tribune in 1981, stating, “The Clinic’s help is also first class . . . There were 27 emergency doctors, 35 paramedics, 60 emergency medical technicians . . . and even a Harvard biostatistician on hand. The volunteer doctors were (quoting Skip Gay) ‘the most highly skilled emergency physicians in the Bay area. I was so proud of them. Money couldn’t buy the skill we had there.’”
Skip worked later as physician to prisoners in the corrections department and taught as an associate professor at U.C. Davis Medical Center. Six years ago he moved to Alaska, living in Valdez, a small community with no anesthesiologist for 70 miles. He bought a house in Valdez, where his wife, Penny Miller, came to visit regularly and help him with his great hobby after medicine—raising prizewinning Samoyed dogs. He practiced in Valdez until overtaken by a serious illness that took him to the Anchorage Hospital two weeks before his death of a heart attack.
The Missouri Medical Review devoted a 2001 cover story to the achievements of Dr. Skip Gay. That year, Rock Medicine “had presented its first Lifetime Achievement Award to Gay for his role as a teacher, healer and outspoken advocate for nonjudgmental, nonpunitive and readily available health care. Accordingly, the award plaque is inscribed with the free clinic mission that Gay articulated: Take care of patients now, return them to their friends and family, and do away with the necessity of hospitalizing them or getting them involved with the law. It’s considered sacred text by the clinic’s staff and hundreds of volunteers.”
Among us at Amherst were three future doctors from the John Burroughs School in St. Louis: Skip Gay, Ted Hager and plastic surgeon Len Furlow, who points out that the Burroughs yearbook text, perhaps like our own recollections, “certainly didn’t predict the great things Skip would accomplish.”
Skip Gay loved to fish, evidenced by an 85-pound king salmon caught near Valdez and mounted in his house. His clever cartoons appeared in the Amherst Student and his medical school yearbook. He loved to raise dogs. He loved to take care of people at risk—and in this, he truly excelled.
According to Skip’s sister, Tito Gay, his family tree included five doctors in succession, counting his son, Dan, who survives him. Other survivors include his wife Penny Miller, his previous spouses, his four children and seven grandchildren. It is clear that Skip was much loved and is greatly missed by all his family, and the many who gathered at memorial services for him in Valdez and California.
—Robert B. Skeele ’52