Charles Robinson and George Tiller: Two Physicians Who Fought for Justice in a Turbulent Kansas

This month brings two anniversaries of note to those of us who are interested in the role that doctors can play in the struggle for social justice: May 21, when pro-slavery "ruffians" invaded Lawrence, Kansas in 1856, and May 31, when George Tiller was murdered by an anti-abortion terrorist in 2009.

This month brings two anniversaries of note to those of us who are interested in the role that doctors can play in the struggle for social justice: May 21, when pro-slavery "ruffians" invaded Lawrence, Kansas in 1856, and May 31, when George Tiller was murdered by an anti-abortion terrorist in 2009. Shutterstock

Late May brings two anniversaries of note to those of us who are interested in the role that physicians can play in the struggle for social justice. Both events, coincidentally, are connected to the State of Kansas. May 21 is the anniversary of the 1856 invasion by pro-slavery “ruffians,” as they were called, of the City of Lawrence: a key event in the decade-long violent struggle between those who wanted Kansas to become a free state and those who wanted it to permit slavery and become aligned with the South in the looming Civil War. Charles Robinson, a Massachusetts-born doctor, was a leader of the abolitionist forces in Lawrence who helped to keep the city safe during the “ruffian” attacks. May 31, meanwhile, marks the sixth anniversary of an anti-abortion terrorist’s assassination of Dr. George Tiller, a longtime abortion provider in Wichita.

Though these men lived more than a century apart and became committed to different political causes, there are a number of striking similarities in their histories. Each, from a starting point as a quite conventional physician, changed his life plan in response to social conditions he found unacceptable.

Neither shied away from their activities because of the dangers involved—even before Tiller was murdered, he was shot by another zealot and endured numerous threats on his life, and Robinson too was injured and imprisoned by his enemies. Both, moreover, felt deeply rooted in Kansas, in spite of the considerable forces opposing them. As Tiller told an interviewer who inquired why he stayed in Wichita, given the constant threats, “I am a member of this community. Our DNA has been here since 1880. I belong here.” Robinson, though not a native, chose to remain in Kansas for the rest of his life after moving there in 1854.

In a fascinating recent post, writer Andrew McLeod, a historian of cooperative movements, briefly recounts Robinson’s remarkable life. After a period of medical practice in western Massachusetts, he moved to Sacramento around the time of the Gold Rush in 1849. There, he became a leader of the Sacramento Settlers Association, which sought to protect the rights of homesteaders against unscrupulous land speculators who sought to evict them. Though Robinson urged nonviolent resistance, bloody encounters between the squatters and their opponents resulted in his being injured and jailed. While still in jail, he was elected to represent Sacramento in the first California legislature.

After a brief return to Massachusetts and to medical practice, Robinson was recruited in 1854 to go to Kansas to lead the fight against slavery by the New England Emigrant Aid Society, a group which was instrumental in settling abolitionists in the then-territory. The leadership skills that Robinson had developed in Sacramento were put to use in Kansas. On May 21, the day that Lawrence—the city where Robinson had settled and which was the center of the abolitionist forces—was attacked, there was massive property damage, but only one fatality. As McLeod writes, “Although their leaders had been captured, the people of Lawrence were still able to stand down in an organized way. The attack on Lawrence was (almost) bloodless because its residents were organized, with Dr. Robinson heading the Committee of Safety.”

In the volatile period in which Kansas was becoming a state, Robinson’s own house was burned in the sacking of Lawrence and he was jailed for a time by pro-slavery forces. He was ultimately elected to be the first governor of Kansas—only to be then impeached by his political enemies. Nonetheless, Robinson went on to later serve in the Kansas State Senate, headed the Kansas Historical Society, and spent 12 years as a regent of the newly founded University of Kansas. Robinson, who died in 1894, was in his later years a vocal supporter of suffrage for Black people and women.

Tiller, until his murder in 2009, was arguably the most polarizing abortion provider in the United States. He was revered by his colleagues in the close-knit and relatively small national abortion-providing community. He was one of only a handful of doctors in the United States to offer, under specific conditions, abortions in the third trimester of pregnancy. Because of this, it was George Tiller to whom other providers sent their hardest cases, such as 9-year-old victims of incest or women with wanted pregnancies which had gone horribly wrong late in pregnancy, either because of just discovered fetal anomalies or because of the onset of illness of the women themselves. Tiller’s colleagues—who habitually referred to him as “Saint George”—knew that their patients would be treated with compassion as well as with state-of-the-art medical care, and would often have their fees reduced or waived.

In the anti-abortion movement, however, Tiller was reviled and ceaselessly demonized as “Tiller the Killer,” because of his willingness to provide later abortions. For years before his eventual murder, Tiller drove to work in an armored car; his office and home (and those of his staff) were periodically surrounded by screaming protesters, most notably during the 1991 “Summer of Mercy,” when the extremist group Operation Rescue drew thousands of protesters to Wichita. Up to the time of his death, anti-abortion groups brought immense pressures, including threats of boycotts and disruptive protests, on local merchants and vendors to refrain from servicing his clinic.

Considering the lives of these two individuals, their careers clearly took very different paths from those toward which they were presumably headed in their early medical training. Charles Robinson’s passion for economic and racial justice, as evidenced by his involvement in the Sacramento and Lawrence struggles, eventually drew him away from medical practice per se and to a life spent in public service. George Tiller remained deeply involved with medical care all his adult life, but in a practice of a dramatically different nature than he had originally intended. He had been on track to become a dermatologist when the sudden death of his parents and sister in an airplane crash led to his abruptly taking over his father’s family medicine practice in Wichita. There, he was astonished to learn that his father had quietly been providing abortions before Roe v. Wade. These patients’ stories had a profound effect on the younger Dr. Tiller. As he told an interviewer, “I’m a woman-educated physician .… The women in my father’s practice for whom he did abortions taught me that abortion … is about women’s hopes, dreams, potential, the rest of their lives. Abortion is a matter of survival for women.” Eventually, his medical practice became entirely devoted to abortion care.

Were Charles Robinson and George Tiller alive today, they no doubt would be dispirited by the political situation of their beloved state. The two terms of an extremely conservative governor, Sam Brownback, and a legislature dominated by similar right-wingers, have brought a relentless barrage of abortion restrictions, including a law in place that essentially bans abortion providers from participating as volunteers in public schools. Tiller was a doting grandfather to several kids—if still with us, he may have been barred, according to how this law has been interpreted by some pro-choice lawyers, from accompanying them on school field trips. To be sure, other abortion restrictions passed in that state are far more damaging to abortion care, such as the move to ban dilation and evacuation (D and E) abortions, the most commonly used technique of second-trimester abortion in the United States. Brownback has also led an effort to drastically cut the budgets of Kansas schools—a move that would certainly enrage Robinson, who was deeply involved in Kansas education. (It is quite possible that as an undergrad at the University of Kansas, George Tiller had occasion to enter Robinson Hall, named in honor of that institution’s early supporter.)

But profoundly political as each of these men was, they definitely would take heart at the efforts to push back at these measures. An abortion clinic, South Wind Women’s Center, has opened in the former facility operated by Tiller, and has successfully operated for two years, despite the enormous hostility to abortion by Kansas politicians and the continued presence of protesters. The center’s director, Julie Burkhart, a former political associate of Tiller’s, has also started the Trust Women Foundation, which seeks to expand abortion access to other underserved areas. Parent and teacher groups have actively protested the draconian educational cuts, most recently with a 60-mile hike to the state capital.

There is no simple answer to the question of why some physicians are content to merely see patients (certainly a most honorable choice, when care is delivered well), while others choose to engage with larger, often deeply contested, issues of social justice. Both Charles Robinson and George Tiller could have chosen different, quieter life paths—and Tiller, tragically, paid the ultimate price for not doing so. The world is a better place because there are individuals such as these.