Professor Bill Leslie commissioned to write JHU history book

Bill Leslie

Image caption: Historian Bill Leslie (here at Evergreen Museum & Library with John Calvin French’s 1946 book about the university) will spend five years researching and writing about Johns Hopkins, where he has worked since 1981.

Credit: Max Levine

Stuart "Bill" Leslie laments the scarcity of good, readable university histories.

Often, he says, a compelling narrative and multihued characters are forfeited and what remains can be a lifeless timeline of administrations and milestone moments.

Leslie hopes to change the standard, and he's aiming his keen historical eye directly on Johns Hopkins.

The longtime professor in the Krieger School's History of Science and Technology Department has been tasked with writing the definitive history of the university. His work officially begins July 1, and the ambitious effort will likely take him five years to complete.

President Ronald J. Daniels, who commissioned the project, told Leslie to write the book as he wants, being critical where need be.

Leslie says that Daniels didn't have to ask twice.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I hope it's the best book I ever write," says Leslie, who will give up his primary teaching duties in order to work on the book. "I'll leave it for other people to judge. It better be [laughs.] The expectations are there." Leslie is not unacquainted with university histories. He authored The Cold War and American Science: The Military-Industrial-Academic Complex at MIT and Stanford (Columbia University Press, 1994), a somewhat unflattering account of how universities compromised academic freedom in relation to government-sponsored research and development. He's also the author of Boss Kettering: Wizard of General Motors (Columbia University Press, 1983).

"I am thrilled that Bill agreed to write this book," Daniels says. "We were America's first research university and the model for higher education in this country and beyond. The time has come for a definitive book that chronicles our remarkable history—so we can learn how we came to where we are, and draw lessons for where we should go next."

Although he's yet to officially begin his research, Leslie does say that the book will be one volume, be driven by powerful personalities, cover all the divisions of the university, and take the reader, in no certain order, from its founding in 1876 up until the present administration.

He says he wants the work to appeal to those inside and outside Johns Hopkins and inform a larger conversation on the past, present, and future of higher education.

When talking about the book he wants to write, Leslie quotes little-known Colonial-era historian Douglass Greybill Adair.

"Adair says that history is a dialogue in the present with the past about the future," he says. "That is exactly what every history should be. I'm interested in what impact Johns Hopkins has had on the creation of modern disciplines and higher education in general. I want to show how we got where we are, for better or worse. It's quite a strong story, and I want to do it justice."

Leslie's book will not be the first crack at a chronicle of JHU. John Calvin French, a professor of English and director of the university libraries in the 1930s and 1940s, wrote A History of the University Founded by Johns Hopkins (JHU Press, 1946) that covers the first 75 years. Focusing on the university's early years, Hugh Hawkins authored Pioneer: A History of the Johns Hopkins University, 1874–1889 (Cornell University Press, 1960).

More recently came Robert P. Sharkey's purposefully brief Johns Hopkins: Centennial Portrait of a University (1975) and a decade later Johns Hopkins: Portrait of a University by John C. Schmidt, essentially an updating of Sharkey's work that corrected some factual errors.

For the university's 125th anniversary, it commissioned Johns Hopkins: Knowledge for the World: 1876–2001, a photo-driven, oral-history-rich work done by Mame Warren.

Divisions of the university have also commissioned their own histories, giving us such works as Leading the Way: A History of Johns Hopkins Medicine by Neil A. Grauer (JHU Press, 2012) and Transit to Tomorrow: Fifty Years of Space Research at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory by Helen Worth and Mame Warren (JHU/APL, 2009). Until now, however, there has been no authoritative work that knits together the stories of the whole university throughout its entire existence.

"So some might ask why we need another history if we already have all these," Leslie says. "I would say one valid reason is that many of these works don't really [make clear] how all the divisions are connected."

Leslie promises a book that will be objective and, if he can help it, won't start with the bequest of Johns Hopkins that founded both the university and hospital that bear his name.

"That has been done to death. And I believe this can't be an administration history. The problem with many histories is that they start from the top down. So you might want to talk about things as the [Daniel Coit] Gilman years, the [Ira] Remsen years, etc. But what makes it interesting are the faculty and the graduates. I also want to pay attention to the undergraduates."

Leslie joined JHU in 1981 as a postdoctoral fellow. His research interests include the history of industrial research, the auto industry, the Cold War university, and the history of the laboratory. In the past decade, his work has turned toward corporate architecture and the architecture of science, including laboratories, hospitals, and observatories.

He plans to teach an undergraduate course on the history of Johns Hopkins University once a year, starting in spring 2014. And this summer he will start to record oral histories.

While the university-history genre as a whole includes many disappointments, Leslie does have some favorites. The best he's read, he says, is Judith Goodstein's Millikan's School: A History of the California Institute of Technology (W.W. Norton & Co., 1991), with its strong characters and lively writing. He's also a fan of The Making of Princeton University: From Woodrow Wilson to the Present (Princeton University Press, 2006) by James Axtell, a work he calls the model of its kind.

Leslie hopes his book can match or eclipse these.

"It's easy to imagine a great book, but certainly a lot harder to write one," he says. "Bringing the story to life takes hard work, and that is the task before me."

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