Happy 86th Birthday Martin Hall and How a Eugencist Spoke at its Dedication

This week will see the uncelebrated but noteworthy passage of Martin Hall’s 86th birthday. The former location of the Biology department now stands as a skeletal wreck of its former self. It was one of two buildings on campus that housed just one department, the other being the now demolished Hicks Hall, which stood on the site where Singer Hall stands now and was the home of Swarthmore’s engineering department (more on the precursors to Singer to come in a future article). 

At its dedication, Oct. 2nd, 1937, former President Emeritus of Yale University James Rowland Angell was the keynote speaker at the opening ceremony. Angell used the opportunity to make a political statement railing against increased taxes. In an article from the Oct. 5th edition of The Phoenix, he is quoted saying, “The chapter in our history which has been marked by these splendid private philanthropies is threatened by policies of taxation which have been gathering increased momentum.” 

The taxes Angell likely was speaking of are the Social Security tax, first collected in 1937, and the Revenue Acts of 1936 and 1937, which expanded the government’s power to prevent tax evasion. More broadly, like many of his fellow Republicans, Angell was horrified at the massive expansion of the federal government and its tax infrastructure to fund the social welfare programs of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. 

Angell was also a eugenicist, as the website “Eugenics and its Afterlives” documents in their digital guide to Yale’s Manuscripts & Archives. According to the website, “Angell … intended to institutionalize eugenics, and helped recruit prominent eugenicists like psychologist Robert Yerkes and anthropologist Clark Wissler for the Yale Institute of Psychology.” 

Angell was invited by then-President of Swarthmore Frank Aydelotte, after whom Swarthmore’s current Aydelotte Foundation is named. Angell’s speech lauded Fred M. Kirby’s donation of $900,000 to build and endow the building and emphasized his hope that philanthropy will continue to provide for higher education, even in the face of rising taxes. Incidentally, Mr. Kirby, a dime store millionaire who founded a company that would merge with Woolworth’s department store, would leave $30 million dollars ($635,993,571 today) to his son upon his death in 1940, making his son the 2nd richest man in the United States at the time. Angell, who had worked both for the Carnegie Company of New York and NBC, railed against the degree and credit system, which he called “the two evils which have ruined much of the finest in educational discipline and beclouded the true objectives of education.”

Similarly to those discussing Swarthmore today, he also said that “The academic level of Swarthmore seniors is comparable with that of many who have done work in the stronger graduate schools,” indicating that Swarthmore’s insistence that its students are as smart as graduate students elsewhere is not a new phenomenon. 

As for the newly opened Martin Hall, it was seen as a paragon of scientific progress. Laurence Irving, head of the Department of Biology, was excited to put the new facilities to use in his research of “the chemistry of the muscles.” An Oct. 19, 1937 Phoenix article noted Martin’s state-of-the-art “laboratories, dark rooms, a soundproof room, a greenhouse, and a constant temperature room.” The building housed the botany, zoology, and psychology departments on the first, second, and third floors respectively. Another feature of Martin was a switchboard, which allowed “…the operator to set up experiments in any laboratory and to run them from the switchboard.” 

In the mid to early 1990’s, the laboratories of the building were renovated. The building was also home to one of Swarthmore’s two lecture halls at the time. More would be built during the renovations in the DuPont Science Center (colloquially known as “Sci”) between 2001 and 2004. These renovations also joined Martin, Sci, and Cornell. Previously, they had been three separate buildings. According to David Bing, Swarthmore student historian from the class of 2003, the space was used for movie showings and student group meetings, a purpose which the college plans to continue. Swarthmore’s webpage advertising the current renovations being done on Martin Hall states that “the campus will gain an outdoor arts plaza, an auditorium, and event space to use for lectures and film screenings.” I’m sure we are all looking forward to the opening of the new Martin Hall (and the end of construction in Sci Quad), even if it lacks the amenities described in the 1937 article, like “…a room with the floor resting on an air cushion, with minimum number [of] contacts with the building.”

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