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Past in the Present

New university project engages students, faculty, staff, and alumni to uncover gems from Johns Hopkins’ rich history.

So you think you know Johns Hopkins. You’ve walked across the Homewood campus countless times, perhaps enrolled in a class at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, attended a concert at the Peabody Conservatory, taken your kids to the Spring Fair. But how much do you really know about the institution?

Johns Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels decided that he wanted to know more. In the spring of 2013, he initiated Hopkins Retrospective, a multiyear, institutional history project that pulls together divisions, departments, faculty, and students to examine and uncover the rich history of Johns Hopkins.

“In our founding, we defined the model of the American research university, now emulated around the globe,” says Daniels. “Yet, there is still more to uncover about how the elements of our one university coalesced and evolved, shaped by and influencing the events and discoveries of the past 138 years. I am excited to embark on the Hopkins Retrospective, an initiative to expand our understanding of the history of Hopkins and weave that history into the university experience.” The project will be guided by program manager Jenny Kinniff, a staff member of the Sheridan Libraries and University Museums. The Hopkins Retrospective website was launched in October.

Faculty, staff, and students from the Krieger School play a central part in Hopkins Retrospective. The centerpiece of the project is a new history of the institution being written by history of science Professor (and 33-year veteran of JHU) Stuart “Bill” Leslie (see p. 15). Leslie also teaches Building Hopkins, a class where students investigate aspects of the Homewood campus, from the unexpected (the Morton Blaustein rocks outside Olin Hall, Ira Remsen’s ashes entombed in his eponymous hall) to the classic (Gilman Hall, Homewood Field, the Greenhouse), creating digital archives to house their findings. A similar project was undertaken by students in Interpreting Collections, a class taught by Beth Maloney, a lecturer in the Program in Museums and Society. Maloney’s students planned and created signage commemorating historical sites at Homewood, some of which, like the Botanic Gardens (now the President’s garden) or Wyman Park Villa (now the site of Garland Hall), no longer exist. Students researched and wrote the text for the signs and collaborated on their design with students from the Maryland Institute College of Art. In Archiving Student Life, another Hopkins Retrospective project, undergraduates worked with archivists at the Sheridan Libraries to evaluate and build the project’s student life collection.

The Hopkins Retrospective project has begun to collect memories and memorabilia from alumni, faculty, staff, and the Baltimore community. Have a Hopkins-related story you would like to share? Contact [email protected] and lend your voice to our storied history.

To see more blasts from the past and to learn details about the Hopkins Retrospective project, visit

Finding Humility in History

Stuart “Bill” Leslie, a professor in the Department of History of Science and Technology, discusses his ongoing effort to write on a new institution wide history of Johns Hopkins.

What makes a good university history?

Dramatic personalities! The problem with almost all university histories is that they are institutional histories concerned with administrative and financial decisions. I think a good university history has to be personality-driven. It has to be an intellectual history. I’ve spent the last year and a bit studying almost exclusively faculty members of one sort or another … like David Robinson, a classicist who rediscovered Olynthus, a city in Greece that was destroyed by Philip and Alexander. Or William Foxwell Albright, the great biblical archaeologist.

Your organization of the book is different from that of previous histories. How did you come up with the idea of organizing by spaces?

A while ago, [Professor] Bob Kargon and I were thinking about a project that we were going to call Spaces of Inquiry, where we would look at three different cities in three different eras through the lens of the clinic, the studio, and the laboratory. And when this book project came along, it seemed like the ideal way to apply “spaces of inquiry” to an actual institution over a long period of time. Hopkins was the place that reinvented the seminar, the clinic, the laboratory, the studio, and interdisciplinary spaces, so I thought methodologically this would be a completely appropriate way to write about Hopkins.

Any surprises in your research so far?

One of the rich resources that I hadn’t expected to find is the many memoirs of people who went here and wrote about their experience when they retired. If you want to find out what Remsen’s laboratory downtown looked like, there’s a guy who lived to be 100 years old and wrote an autobiography called My First Hundred Years—which I thought was very optimistic—and he has wonderful accounts of the polish on the desks and the lab benches and how it was set up. People had a sense that they were involved in something important, so they made a note about it.

Social media also allows us to collect reminiscences really quickly. Now we don’t have to go looking for people with stories; they can come looking for us.

Has your work changed the way you think about the university or your place in it?

Yes! I’m far more humble. There’s a reason why Hopkins has its reputation, and these are the people who earned it. Take somebody like [Daniel Coit] Gilman. He was just a name on the building and somebody I knew as a founding president. I found a letter that said one of Gilman’s great strengths was that he was able “to cast horoscopes” for young faculty members, and I thought, “That’s brilliant. That’s a brilliant way to put it.” Because he was able to identify people who were 30 years old who would go on at age 60 to be the greatest person in their field. That’s a hard thing to do. It’s also great fun to learn about people I knew about as old men when they were young.