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Finding Humility in History

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.