David Starr Jordan: It's Complicated
by Susie Hodgson
Have you heard that David Starr Jordan middle school has to change its name? Burbank’s school board voted unanimously to do so. But why? And who is or was David Starr Jordan anyway?
David Starr Jordan was born in 1851 into a progressive family. When young David was ready to go to high school, his forward-thinking parents enrolled him into an all-girls school. They attended only Universalist or Unitarian churches. They never whipped David and gave him a lot of freedom to pursue his outdoor hobbies. David went on to get his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Cornell in ichthyology (study of fish) and botany. He continued his education at Indiana’s Medical College, where he was able to get a job as a professor in Natural History at Indiana University (IU), Bloomington. (Ever see the great cult classic film Breaking Away? Or do you know where John Mellencamp lives? That’s Bloomington.)
In 1885, David Starr Jordan was named the 7th president of IU, at the tender age of 34. Jordan worked hard, improving IU’s finances, public image and doubling enrollment. He also instituted a modern liberal arts curriculum.
So it wasn’t long before David Starr Jordan was recruited away by millionaires Leland and Jane Stanford who were building that university in Northern California. They wanted Jordan to be the school’s first president. Although rather light on experience, he shared the Stanfords’ vision of a non-sectarian, co-educational, liberal arts university. He was also known for his rapport with students. So Jordan and his family went west! Jordan remained as top dog of Stanford University from 1891 to 1916. He proved to be a very positive force on campus, both with staff and students, and he handled the 1906 earthquake catastrophe remarkably. During Jordan’s tenure, he also was a leader in the new Sierra Club.
It all sounds pretty good, right? Jordan published dozens of papers, essays and books on his great love -- something today we’d call the environment. He discovered literally dozens of fish types. But, unfortunately, his story doesn’t end there.
He was also a leader in the field of eugenics.
Eu... what, you say? Well, back in the late 1800s, a half-cousin of Charles Darwin’s coined the term eugenics. It “sort of” came from Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and survival of the fittest. (Actually, the concept was not invented in the 1800s; it was mentioned as far back as Plato’s time.) The modern eugenics believers felt, “Why not ensure that the human race is made up of only the fittest? Let’s eliminate the undesirables ,” they proposed. And who were these “undesirables”? The mentally ill, the physically handicapped, people with low IQs (called imbeciles), as well as promiscuous women, the poor, homosexuals, Jews, blacks and pretty much ALL minorities – you get the idea.
In the early 20th century, eugenics was reasonably popular and many learned people espoused the idea. Just some of these names may surprise you – Teddy Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw (famous writer/playwright), Margaret Sanger (founder of Planned Parenthood), Alexander Graham Bell, HG Wells (author of When Worlds Collide), Jacques Cousteau and EVEN Helen Keller!
But what if it was just a passing fancy for David Starr Jordan? A whim? Don’t we all make mistakes? Sure, but remember Jordan was a LEADER in the field of eugenics. A VOCAL if not loud leader. He helped form The Human Betterment Foundation, a group that strongly supported forced sterilization of undesirables. (Forced sterilizations remain on the books to this day, believe it or not, although it was much more common before World War II. Sadly, it was SO common in the South among poor black women that the sterilizations were shockingly nicknamed “Mississippi Appendectomies.”) He served on the powerful Committee on Eugenics of the American Breeders’ Association. Jordan wrote a book called The Blood of the Nation, also pushing for a superior race. He gave speeches and testified at the famous Scopes trial in 1925. He is on record as having said, “The germs of pauperism and crime are biologically inherited” and he believed that forcibly segregating and sterilizing “feeble-minded people” was vital to stop them from having children. Furthermore, he hated the immigration of “temperamental races” to the United States.
Needless to say, eugenics lost a lot of its appeal during WWII. We all know what Hitler did and the Nazis quoted American eugenics leaders (such as David Starr Jordan) to justify the holocaust in the infamous Judgment at Nuremberg trials.
But interestingly, Jordan was a fervent pacifist. He was even mocked for not supporting World War I. But his views were not based on morals. To Jordan, opposing war was a practical stance. After all, we’d be sending our strongest boys off to war to die, losing that valuable strong trait in our gene pool.
Still, Jordan has been honored a great deal over the years. Not only did we have a middle school named for him, but so did Palo Alto (home of Stanford) although both schools have since rescinded the name. There is a fisheries research ship called the David Starr Jordan. In 1986, the David Starr Jordan Prize was created by Indiana University and Cornell. There is a David Starr Jordan high school in Los Angeles; a David Starr Jordan school in Long Beach; a Jordan river that flows through the IU campus; a David Starr Jordan tree at the University of Hawaii; a Jordan Avenue in Bloomington; a Jordan Hall at IU; a Jordan Hall at Stanford, a Jordan Lake in Utah, a Mt. Jordan mountain peak in Tuolumne County, CA, and more.
And if all this isn’t enough, David Starr Jordan is rumored to have played a part in the death of Jane Stanford. Jordan did not get along with Jane and she threatened to fire him. Then suddenly she died of strychnine poisoning , said the coroner. But Jordan launched his own investigation with his own doctor who said it was a heart attack, even though her symptoms were nothing like those of a heart attack. People still wonder why Jordan rushed in. Was it to protect the reputation of Stanford? Was it to protect the university’s fundraising efforts? Or did Jordan himself arrange it? In 2005, publications emerged declaring she was indeed murdered.
David Starr Jordan died in 1931, before he could see what Hitler did to his eugenics. I like to think Jordan would have changed his position. What do you think? (PS. Don’t tell the school board about Thomas Jefferson School. Or should we? Jefferson had more than 600 slaves!)
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