Is Palmer Really Named After a Communist-Hunting Former Attorney General?

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Our most famous alumnus with said name is Alexander Mitchell Palmer, who graduated in 1891 and went on to become Attorney General under Woodrow Wilson. But a quick glance into his accomplishments makes most Swatties just a little uncomfortable: the “Fighting Quaker” is famous for leading the Palmer Raids against suspected communists, anarchists, and other radical leftists during his tenure as Attorney General.

The good news is, our dorm is actually named after a far more peaceful Palmer: Samuel Copeland Palmer, who graduated in 1895 and served as Professor of Botany from 1909 to 1942. Professionally, he was the chief botanist on an expedition to Baffin Land in the Arctic Circle in 1929, and he also worked on a project to illustrate every kind of plant in Delaware County.

With regard to the college, Samuel was very involved in college athletics, but also a driving force behind the transformation of the campus into an arboretum, submitting a plan to the Board of Managers in 1925 and later serving on the Executive Committee that developed the arboretum.

Palmer Hall was named after Samuel in 1942 to recognize his lifelong service and devotion to his alma mater, and in 1943 explorer Donald McMillan named an island in Frobisher Bay after him.

In contrast, all Alexander Mitchell Palmer ever got was the distinction of having deported Emma Goldman to Russia and of wrongly predicting an attempted Communist revolution–Alexander was convinced that the communists would strike America on May 1, 1920, but when the day went by without a rumble, the American public lost respect for him and he lost the Democratic presidential nomination for which he had once been considered a sure thing.

Do you have other questions about Swarthmore’s past Communist and anti-Communist entanglements? Or maybe you want to know more about the plants of Delaware County? Send us your questions at dailygazette [at] swarthmore [dot] edu.

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