September 14, 2009

Corresponding with President Ira Remsen

Ira Remsen, Johns Hopkins president, and professor of chemistry, could be direct and to the point in his correspondence. Take the exchange of letters between him and a PhD alumnus, Lyman C. Newell, professor of chemistry at Boston University.

Professor Newell, a distinguished chemist, teacher and historian of chemistry, wrote to Remsen on March 19, 1907, inquiring about several things.

He was about to purchase an academic gown, cap and hood, and he wanted to know “the exact kind of hood I should get to conform to the PhD degree from Johns Hopkins.” His wife’s interest in clothes, he said, “has always seemed rather frivolous, but now I am confronted with a somewhat feminine problem. I confess there may be some need, after all, to get the right thing.”

Replying that he did not know much about such things, Remsen wrote: “I know this much; there is a regular hood for the Johns Hopkins Ph.D. I began a little late in life to study millinery and have little hope of becoming an expert. I sometimes wish all gowns and hoods could be consigned to some place that would make short work of them, but in view of the prevalent state of mind, this is rank heresy.”

Professor Newell had other questions. Did Remsen have autographed letters or portraits of chemists or old books on chemistry? Perhaps the president might have some duplicates he would be willing to give up.

Remsen: “I suppose that in the files the autographs of nearly all the leading chemists of the day could be found, but I do not know who is going to find them. I am not a collector and have not the instincts of a collector, I regret to say. So also in the matter of portraits. I have practically nothing except a few photographs and a few engravings that could be obtained elsewhere without any effort whatever.”

Newell wrote with some enthusiasm about his encounters with famous chemists while traveling abroad.
To that Remsen replied: “I am a poor hand at cultivating acquaintance among chemists. If I meet them in a natural way, I rejoice–perhaps. If I do not, I do not worry. If I go to Europe I never look up chemists. They sometimes look me up, and sometimes I wish they wouldn’t. This, however, is all irrelevant, and certainly not helpful to you.”

With that, he thanked Newell for his good wishes, adding, “I hope your work is going well, as usual.”
The correspondence is in the Hamburger Archives of the Eisenhower Library.
Ira Remsen was the university’s second president, succeeding Daniel Coit Gilman in 1901. He had been recruited by Gilman to be the professor of chemistry in the university’s first faculty. He retired in 1912 due to poor health.

This is part of an occasional series of historical pieces by Ross Jones, vice president and secretary emeritus of the university. A 1953 graduate of Johns Hopkins, he returned in 1961 as assistant to president Milton S. Eisenhower and was a close aide to six of the university’s 13 presidents.