Johns Hopkins history project gets a new virtual home, Hopkins Retrospective

Image caption: The JHU athletic team bus, ca. 1885, at Clifton Mansion’s gates. The image, now on the Hopkins Retrospective website, is from the Sheridan Libraries’ Ferdinand Hamburger Archives photograph collection.

Before there were Gilman Hall and the quads, the Homewood campus (though not yet called that) featured a lone greenhouse. The building and its accompanying state-of-the-art botanical gardens were built in 1908 for Duncan Starr Johnson, a botanist who had earned his PhD at Hopkins and then been lured back as part of an effort to expand instruction and research in zoology and botany.

Johnson would create the Johns Hopkins Botanic Laboratory and Gardens and direct them until his death in 1937. For nearly 30 years, he traveled the world to collect flora for the lab, including taking seven trips to Jamaica to work at the Cinchona Botanical Gardens nestled in the Blue Mountains.

Stuart "Bill" Leslie counts Johnson (who was also a nifty flute player and amateur carpenter) as one of his many new acquaintances—most of whom are long ago deceased.

Since summer 2013, Leslie, a professor in the Krieger School's Department of History of Science and Technology, has been on sabbatical and hot on the hunt for personalities, stories, and all manner of minutiae from Johns Hopkins' past. Leslie says he's up to his eyeballs in JHU lore, and loving every minute of it.

President Ronald J. Daniels tasked Leslie with writing a new history of the university. The work, projected for completion in 2018, will cover all divisions of the university, exploring the connections between them and the powerful personalities that shaped them. In 2013, the Office of the President also launched Hopkins Retrospective, a project—with Leslie's book as its centerpiece—designed to explore Johns Hopkins history and find new ways to share it with the university and Greater Baltimore communities.

To manage the project, the university this past summer hired Jenny Kinniff, an archivist who before joining Johns Hopkins worked at George Washington University, where she led the creation of DigitalDC, an interactive Web exhibit that will detail the history of the nation's capital, starting with the Foggy Bottom neighborhood, where GW's central campus is located.

For Johns Hopkins, Kinniff has helped launch the Hopkins Retrospective website, which went live in early November to serve as the virtual home of the project and to allow visitors to learn more about Leslie's book and explore the history of the university in greater depth. The site, already populated with facts and rarely seen images, will become a repository for stories, pictures, and perspectives from throughout the university's nearly 140 years of existence, and will highlight various Hopkins Retrospective initiatives.

Several projects are already underway, including "The History of Student Life at Johns Hopkins," for which undergraduates curated the university's archival holdings to produce a digital exhibit on aspects of student life. Earlier this year, students in a course offered by the Program in Museums and Society explored the history of the Homewood campus alongside experts in heritage studies. Under the mentorship of museum educator Elizabeth Maloney, students developed  "A Sense of Place: Hidden Stories of the Homewood Campus," a series of 10 interpretive signs that highlight various sites and explain their significance in the history of Johns Hopkins. The signs, produced through a partnership with environmental design students at MICA, were installed in September and will remain up for one year.

During the current fall term, students in Jennifer Kingsley's Twenty-First Century Approaches to Material Culture course are exploring the history of the university by researching and interpreting the artifacts collected, created, and used at Johns Hopkins since its founding. Items include a geological hammer, made by Tiffany Studios, belonging to geology Professor George Huntington Williams (1856–94); a 1950s darkroom sign from the Biophysics Department; and a late-19th-century hand-painted plaster model of the neck and head used for anatomy classes at the School of Medicine. The students will present their findings at the end of the term on an interactive website,

The Hopkins Retrospective site, which will be updated regularly, also will host the Hopkins Oral History initiative, which will record, transcribe, and preserve oral histories of members of the Johns Hopkins community.

Kinniff says that in the upcoming months, Hopkins Retrospective will reach out to the university community through efforts such as the Alumni Archives Project, which looks to collect materials (letters, photos, posters, diaries, etc.) and memories from former students. The project also seeks to connect with people through its Twitter account, @HopkinsRetro, and its Tumblr account,

"We want people to share their stories. The goal is to explore the history of Johns Hopkins more broadly than ever before," Kinniff says. "And we want the website to be the home base for all the facts, stories, and images that we uncover. We hope visitors to the site will get a better sense of the scope of Johns Hopkins' history, and all the people and events that shaped the university throughout the decades."

For his part, Leslie says that work on the book is progressing nicely. He says he has already determined how he wants to tell the story, and that he plans to divide the book into what he calls "spaces of inquiry." For example, one space will be "seminars," as Johns Hopkins was the first American university to introduce the seminar method of teaching, through such people as Herbert Baxter Adams, a historian credited with the founding of modern political science. Other spaces will be "laboratory," to chronicle the history of lab-based research, and "the clinic," to look at Johns Hopkins' impact on modern medicine.

"Johns Hopkins has no shortage of pioneering surgeons and clinicians, from [William Stewart] Halsted, who pioneered the radical mastectomy, to psychiatrist Adolf Meyer, the founding director of the Henry Phipps Psychiatric Clinic," he says.

"Secret spaces" focuses largely on the work at the Applied Physics Laboratory, which for decades has conducted research for the U.S. military. Leslie says he's already made several trips to APL to go over declassified files and speak with APL staff.

"It's been a real education, and I was fascinated to learn about the Lab's role in missile defense and see things such as the first photo from space, taken from an APL-built V-2 rocket launched in 1946," says Leslie, who taught an undergraduate course on the history of Johns Hopkins University this past spring and plans to teach another session in 2015. 

Leslie also has started to record a number of oral histories, and to delve even deeper into the university's archives.

The story of Johns Hopkins University is deep and vast, Leslie says, but he aims to get to the bottom of it.

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