“He Decided to Conquer the Place that Had Conquered Him”: Peter Putnam ’42 *50’s Princeton, Part II

In Part I of this two-part series, I told the story of how Peter Putnam ’42 *50 lost his sight in a suicide attempt and fought for the right to return to Princeton University and finish his degree. In this second installment, I detail the life Putnam lived as a student, an employee, and an alum of Princeton University after his return.

Peter Putnam ’42 re-entered Princeton University over the initial objections of the administration, bringing along with him a new companion, Minnie, the first of many guide dogs. (Undergraduates quickly dubbed Minnie “the first co-ed in Princeton history.”) Though Putnam would be known as part of the Class of 1942 in perpetuity, he was a junior when he came back in his original graduation year.

Whether he set out to prove his detractors wrong or it simply happened, Putnam defied their low expectations at every turn. Putnam participated in campus life, with some limitations. He did not, for example, eat with his peers at Commons, his academic record notes tersely, “because of physical disability.” Based on his later writings about not being granted entry to many places in Princeton because of his need for a service dog, it’s possible he wasn’t permitted in the dining hall because Minnie was not allowed to go along. However, he threw himself into opportunities that were available, earning local celebrity for reasons far beyond his constant canine companion. As the Princeton Alumni Weekly put it in 1957, “he decided to conquer the place that had conquered him.”

Triangle Club elected Putnam its president in 1942. He supervised the last of Triangle’s productions during World War II, a show that might not have been possible without him. “Time and Again,” unlike most other Triangle Shows before it, had no Christmas tour, and was only performed locally. Triangle membership that year included students on accelerated programs who had little time for extracurriculars. Putnam ended up writing most of the script himself, playing the role of a World War I veteran in the first scene, and handling the administrative tasks for the show like managing the budget and securing permissions from various stakeholders to stage the production.

Illustrations from the Nassau Sovereign, November 12, 1942, including a reference to “Boss Putnam.”

The song “Here I Sit with the Physically Unfit” from “Time and Again,” written by William K. Zinsser ’44, may give us insight into how ableism would have pervaded Putnam’s experiences at Princeton, even in spaces that seemed otherwise welcoming. In the lyrics, a woman seeking a man to love at a time when most were away at war complains about her options. After the woman notes “I’m left to be protected/By the rejected/But I’m feeling tepid/T’ward the decrepit,” she goes on to list a variety of disabilities that she finds unappealing, including blindness.

I’m left behind

With the lame and the halt and the blind back here

Ev’ryone who isn’t knock-kneed is flying a Lockheed

Ev’ryone without myopia is in Ethiopia

But I must be sweet

To the guys who have got flat feet back here.

Sheet music for “Here I Sit with the Physically Unfit.” Triangle Club Records (AC122), Box 12, Folder 1.

That Triangle Club wasn’t fully prepared to accept the disabled shouldn’t be surprising in an era when nearly all of society itself was designed without them in mind. Studying wasn’t as easy anymore for Putnam, either. Although he could read Braille, most of the books he needed weren’t available that way, so he hired other undergraduates to read aloud to him, then began to rely on his girlfriend, Durinda Dobbins, from Smith College. Putnam met Dobbins after his accident. She would read books into a tape recorder and Putnam would play them back repeatedly, committing them to memory. In spite of the barriers, he got higher grades as a blind student than he had as a severely depressed and suicidal but sighted one, graduating with High Honors in Modern Languages in 1944.

Unlike most people around Putnam or the frustrated, single woman  in “Time and Again,” Dobbins believed Putnam should not attempt to limit himself. Dobbins even taught Putnam to ski as one of their courtship activities. Dobbins and Putnam married shortly after they both graduated from college, while Minnie looked on quietly. They chose to live in Princeton, where the familiar surroundings were easier for Putnam to navigate than a new place would have been.

Putnam had applied to Princeton’s Graduate School, seeking an advanced degree in history. Despite how well he had done in his last few years as an undergraduate, administrators were again skeptical. However, world circumstances—i.e., most men being away at war rather than filling up graduate schools—worked in Putnam’s favor. As E. Harris Harbison explained in a letter to the Dean of the Graduate School, Luther P. Eisenhart, on July 24, 1944,

Joe [Strayer] is rather reluctant to take Putnam on, for the obvious reason that his blindness may prove to be an almost insurmountable handicap in getting a doctorate in history. But I’ve persuaded him that we should admit him on the understanding that we don’t expect him to go beyond a year of graduate work, or at most beyond an M.A. … In normal times we’d simply turn him down in favor of others better qualified, but Joe agrees that it would be unfair to deny him a try-out under the present circumstances.

In spite of these discriminatory expectations, Putnam passed his language and general qualification exams and was a full-fledged Ph.D. candidate by the end of 1946. Strayer wrote to Hugh S. Taylor, the new Dean of the Graduate School, in early 1947 to request Putnam be given some financial aid, since he had extra expenses associated with his need to hire readers to dictate books into tape recorders for him. “He has never asked us for special favors…[but] will have a very difficult time in making a living and I should not like to feel that we were taking $300 from which he certainly needs for other expenses.” Records do not indicate whether he received this, but they do tell us that Putnam’s performance on his final public oral exam on his dissertation was above average, while still noting his disability: “His chief weakness was in geography, which is not surprising in view of his physical handicap,” Strayer wrote. Putnam earned his Ph.D. in 1950. Minnie had passed away, so it was Wick, the second of many guide dogs who would assist Putnam throughout his life, who walked with him at Commencement.

Peter Putnam ’42 *50 with Wick at Princeton University’s Commencement, 1950. Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box AD30.

Putnam had taught precepts as a graduate student and continued teaching at Princeton after finishing his degree. After a few years, his colleagues began to feel uncomfortable with keeping Putnam at the same title and compensation he had held as a student (i.e., as an Assistant in Instruction). In 1954, acting department chair R. R. Palmer wrote to J. Douglas Brown, Dean of the Faculty, saying that Putnam’s salary seemed low as well “for a Ph.D. with three books to his credit.” Further, he was highly effective. “Cy Black, in whose course he has often precepted, observed casually the other day that Putnam could, in a pinch, give the Russian History course himself.” Brown followed up with a message of his own to Princeton’s president, Harold Dodds. “Though blind, [Putnam] has contributed generously and effectively for several years… I do not feel that a lectureship appointment commits us to anything we can’t fulfill to our advantage. Meanwhile, he is an outstanding example of a man who has contributed to the morale of the intellectual blind.” Dodds scribbled “OK” on the memo, and Putnam’s salary increased dramatically for his final year as faculty—from $566.69 per term to $4,200 per year—now with the title of “Lecturer.”

As Palmer had noted, Putnam was already a prolific author, and this became a major thrust of his career, with him ultimately writing a total of seven books and many more articles for diverse publications. He was a relentless advocate for the blind, but he was also drawn to other social causes. In 1956, Putnam and his wife (now Durinda Dobbins Putnam) founded the Princeton Memorial Association, which helped people plan for their own deaths and funerals. Putnam served as national president of Recording for the Blind and vice president of development for the Unitarian Universalist Association in Boston until, as he put it in the Class of 1942’s 35th reunion book, “I discovered that it was not worth working sixty hours a week and flying fifty thousand miles a year to double my income.”

Peter Putnam ’42 *50 and Wick, 1957. Undergraduate Alumni Records (AC199).

Putnam also threw himself into other forms of activism, supporting the civil rights movement and opposing the Vietnam War. Putnam explained part of this shift in a piece he wrote for Saturday Review’s October 26, 1963 issue, saying that when Princeton had balked at allowing him to finish his degree, “I…began to feel a sense of kinship with the Negro…” Putnam wrote about how difficult Princeton had been even after his return, with constant battles for accommodations with a guide dog. “I have come to know at first hand many of the evasions and discourtesies practiced on the American Negro in our society and, like James Baldwin, I have often found myself inside a restaurant, having won my entrée at such a cost in rage and humiliation, that I had lost my appetite.” Yet Putnam said he also knew that he could not fully understand Baldwin’s experiences. “Until I read James Baldwin, I really believed my blindness had equipped me to understand the problems of the American Negro from the inside. I now know I had barely glimpsed them.”

In 1998, Putnam’s last guide dog, Pasha, died a few weeks before Putnam followed her. Putnam, who had battled lymphoma for three years, was 78. Along with a wife and three children, he left behind a significant legacy, including a widespread acceptance of guide dogs at Princeton University and throughout the United States.



Graduate Alumni Records (AC105)

Faculty and Professional Staff Files (AC107)

Nassau Sovereign

Papers of Princeton

Princeton Alumni Weekly

Putnam, Peter Brock. Cast Off the Darkness. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company: 1957.

__________. “If You Had a Choice.” Saturday Review, October 26, 1963.

__________. Keep Your Head Up, Mr. Putnam! New York: Harper & Brothers, 1952.

__________. Love in the Lead: The Fifty-Year Miracle of the Seeing Eye Dog. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1954.

__________. Peter, the Revolutionary Tsar. New York: Harper and Row, 1973.

__________. Seven Britons in Imperial Russia. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952.

_________. Spiritual Adventures with Peter Putnam: A Collection of Sixteen Sermons from 1955 to 1995. Princeton, New Jersey: Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Princeton, 2000.

__________. The Triumph of the Seeing Eye. Ed. Walter Lord. New York: Harper & Row, 1963.

Triangle Club Records (AC122)

Undergraduate Academic Records (AC198)

Undergraduate Alumni Records (AC199)

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