The Histrionic Historiographer on David Starr Jordan

[Cross-blogged for Leland Quarterly]

Last week, the Histrionic Historiographer established that Leland Stanford, Sr. was in fact the original hipster and the inventor of the indie film. The second installment will explore the background of a man also critical to the founding and survival of the university: the less well-known but equally equivocal David Starr Jordan.

You probably pass by his name every day:

Also known as “The House that Zimbardo Built and Subsequently Almost Destroyed”

David Starr Jordan was the young president of Indiana University and the man that Leland Stanford picked to come west and become the first president of Stanford University.  He went on to guide Stanford’s growth for the first twenty-two years of the university’s existence, through Leland Stanford’s death and rocky finances, and set the groundwork for the renowned university that exists today.  He’s also the man who chose our motto: Die Luft der Freiheit weht, “The wind of freedom blows” (but fun fact: the motto is a translation from a collection of sixteenth-century Latin essays titled “Invectives”—making us probably the only university in the country whose motto consists of, according to the New Oxford American Dictionary, insulting and abusive language).

Jordan also pioneered the classy Stanford arcade photo shoot.

But his love of German vituperation and his stunning, Wilford-Brimley-esque looks hide a darker side to David Starr Jordan.

You see, Jordan was big into eugenics.  In his defense, though, that alone was not that weird until later in the twentieth century, when the Nazis also decided it was cool.  Regardless, Jordan was a founding member of the Human Betterment Foundation, which sounds either like a Nike training camp or a steroid factory (or both), but actually was a prominent organization in the 1920s and 30s that promoted eugenics and compulsory sterilization of the less desirable elements of the human population, including the “insane and feebleminded.”  So the man had some opinions—and I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I’m willing to bet those opinions centered around the fact that only charming, mustachioed university presidents should be allowed to procreate.  To, you know, improve humanity’s genetic profile.  Now, baby, get over here and take a swim in Papa Jordan’s gene pool.

Granted, this whole Human Betterment thing started pretty late in Jordan’s life.  And thought he did write a book called The Blood of the Nation: A Study in the Decay of Races by the Survival of the Unfit (like actually), he’s largely remembered as an academic and for his contributions to ichthyology, writing books with titles closer to Fishes of North and Middle America, Guide to the Study of Fishes, and Shore Fishes of Hawaii.  Jordan was instrumental in the founding of Hopkins Marine Station, and the man even has several species of fish named after him—including J. floridae (the J., of course, stands for Jordanella), the American goddamn flagfish.

Because above all, David Starr Jordan was a goddamn patriot, that’s why.

Two years after Stanford tapped Jordan as president, the founder promptly went off and died, leaving Jordan to manage both the fledgling university and the aging Jane Stanford.  (A tad unfair, as ole Jane could have managed herself and pretty much anyone else on her own.)  This, combined with financial troubles, undoubtedly made the position a stressful one, and matters weren’t helped when Mother Nature decided to give Stanford the geologic finger in 1906 with a magnitude 7.9 earthquake that destroyed the church, library, Memorial Arch (yeah, didn’t even know that one existed, did you?), and several other buildings.

After the shaking stopped, Jordan walked out of his office and surveyed the destruction, including a familiar white marble statue of his mentor, famous paleontologist and geologist Louis Agassiz, which had tumbled off the zoology building (later renamed Jordan Hall) and landed head deep in the ground before it.

Fault lines: why we can’t have nice things.

And what did David Starr Jordan do when he saw this?  When he saw the ruins of his university?  When he saw his legacy—physical and metaphorical—smashed into the pavement?  Did he break down, fall to his knees, and curse the ghosts of the Stanfords?

Of course not.  David Starr Jordan looked around, spat in Fate’s face, and then said, “Somebody [once] remarked that ‘Agassiz was great in the abstract but not in the concrete.’”  And then presumably cackled like a madman.

So to recap:  Love of fish.  Absolutely no fear of earthquakes.  Disregard for the lives and cares of “feebleminded” mortals.  Rockin’ facial hair.  David Starr Jordan was basically Poseidon reincarnate.

Time to build a wooden horse and smuggle yourself into the psych building.

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