“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. Continue reading

“A Fairyland and Hell to Me for Years”: Peter Putnam ’42 *50’s Princeton, Part I

This is the first in a two-part series on the life of Peter Putnam ‘42 *50 in Princeton, before and after he lost his sight. This first installment focuses on the events leading up to the incident in which he was blinded and his fight to return to Princeton University afterward.

Peter Putnam entered Princeton University in 1938 with a talent for academics, but lacking in direction. Because he had long expected to join the Army, he had also assumed he would attend West Point, like his father before him, but the elder Putnam suggested his son find a less frustrating career. The looming threat of war may or may not have influenced the Putnams; in any case, an uncle and other relatives had attended Princeton, and many of Putnam’s classmates were headed there, so it seemed like the default place for him to go. Decades later, Putnam described his 1938 arrival at Princeton University as entering “a fairyland and hell to me for years to come.”

While in college, Putnam was engaged in an internal war with himself, alternately taking advantage of the pleasures offered to a privileged young man in the Ivy League and becoming frustrated when no consequences for his hedonistic lifestyle materialized. He drank and partied his way through a few years, and his photographic memory meant no real need to study in order to pass his classes. Putnam was not a stellar student, to be sure, but he was still doing relatively well, earning grades that would have allowed him to graduate with honors, whether he applied himself or not—and mostly he did not. In a letter to the Dean of the College, Putnam later made some references to family problems contributing to his feelings of despair, without detailing what they were.

A bout with appendicitis and mononucleosis in his junior year deepened Putnam’s depression. He began fantasizing about playing Russian roulette with a revolver to which he had access, wrote a suicide note, and carried bullets to be prepared for the moment he would call it quits on life. He deliberately isolated himself, quitting his extracurriculars and moving into a single room. When Houseparties weekend came in 1941, Putnam went to visit his parents instead of socializing. There, he attempted to carry out his plans.

Telegram from Peter Brock Putnam, May 6, 1941, informing Princeton University that his son had been shot. Undergraduate Academic Records (AC198).

Putnam survived the gunshot, but his vision did not. The bullet severed his optic nerves. Although coming out of a 10-day coma reportedly jolted him out of his depression, giving him a sense of purpose and new goals to work toward, he would now be followed by a double stigma of mental illness and physical disability in an era when neither were granted legal protection against discrimination. He would spend the rest of his life in Princeton contending with both. Continue reading

Michelle (Robinson) Obama ’85 in Princeton’s Freshman Orientation Program

By Iliyah Coles ’22

Freshman Orientation for the Class of 1985, 1981. Office of Communications Records (AC168), Box 182.

It may be difficult to recognize at first glance, but there is a now-famous face in this photograph. The former first lady, Michelle Obama, then named Michelle Robinson, is on the first row sitting from the top towards the middle of the photograph. This is a picture of the 1981 Freshman Orientation Program participants from the Class of 1985. The program was implemented sometime in the 1970s; it lasted for about three weeks during the summer.

The Freshmen Orientation Program was designed to assist incoming students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The program introduced the students to Princeton, complete with rigorous courses and campus life. At the start of the program, only minority students were allowed, but as the program progressed, the participants included those with financial struggles and those who were the first in their high school to attend Princeton. The Daily Princetonian quoted Assistant Dean of Students Rochelle Robinson in 1984, “Academically, the objective of the program is to reduce the ‘preparation gap’ that separates students from small, remote, or inner-city schools.” 

Obama joined this program in 1981 with the incoming Class of 1985. Though the Freshman Orientation Program does not exist in this form today, there is still a version of it called the Freshman Scholars Institute (FSI), which seeks to help incoming students with the transition as well. 

For more information on what our records hold related to Michelle (Robinson) Obama’s time at Princeton, please see our previous blog on this topic.

F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Great Writer, but a Not-So-Great Student

By Iliyah Coles ’22

Many people know about the success of the infamous writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Some know that he attended Princeton University and even based his first novel, This Side of Paradise, on the Ivy League school. However, what many people don’t know is that Fitzgerald was not a star student. In fact, he wasn’t even an average student. F. Scott Fitzgerald was perhaps, in terms of academics, one of the worst students in his class. That could be one of the reasons why he decided to drop out during his junior year of college and join the army.

Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald (named after his well-known, patriotic cousin) initially entered Princeton University with the Class of 1917. Fitzgerald had not done well academically in high school. His thoughts seemed to be always elsewhere, mostly on the girls that he spent time with. According to a 1966 article in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, when Fitzgerald applied to Princeton, the admissions board looked at Fitzgerald’s troubling grades and asked him why they should let him in. Fitzgerald then responded by stating that it was his seventeenth birthday. It is possible that Fitzgerald’s charming personality played a role in his acceptance. Fitzgerald himself stated in Ten Years of Princeton ’17, “Priggishness sits ill on Princeton.” Perhaps this is why he was granted admittance despite his questionable grades in high school.

Nevertheless, Fitzgerald entered the class of 1917 and arrived with big dreams. Fitzgerald became fixated with the social scenes on campus like clubs and sports. He even tried out for the football team during his freshman year, but he was cut on the first day of tryouts because he was so slim, as is indicated by a 1956 PAW article. After his football dreams were crushed, Fitzgerald focused on getting into one of the eating clubs (a substitute for Greek life at the university) and Triangle Club (the university’s biggest theater group). Fitzgerald was able to achieve these two goals and, due to his dedication to them, he found success and happiness in both. It is evident that Fitzgerald was really great at the social aspect of college, but that’s just about the only aspect he was great at.

F. Scott Fitzgerald. Photo from 1917 Nassau Herald.

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Natural Philosophy in the 1830s

By Neha Anil Kumar ’21

Class planning as a Princeton undergraduate today can be difficult to say the least. With a huge variety of distribution requirements I have to take, alongside the major requirements of a STEM concentration, the life of an AB Physics student can get quite busy. So, you can imagine my excitement when I found lecture notes for a class on “Natural Philosophy” taught by Joseh Henry in 1830s that covered topics on modern day physics, mechanical engineering, epistemology, and philosophy along with material science, belonging to a time when students’ classes were definitively decided ahead of time because each entering class was small enough to take all of its courses together.

As I dived right in, not knowing the vast array of topics I was going to be reeled into, I was caught by surprise just across the first two lectures of the series. Contrary to what I expected of an introductory science class, that I considered closely related to physics, the first few lectures delve into much more epistemology than I expected; though the structure of introduction does make intuitional sense. The series begins with an explanation of what science really is and its categorization into the physical (modern day natural science) and the metaphysical (modern day philosophy). Interestingly, to introduce science as a mix of philosophy and quantitative and experimental analysis of phenomena, there does occur a strange attribution of nature’s laws to “tendency of the human mind” alongside a descriptions of various laws simply attributed to divinity. For example, the term “law of nature” is defined as the human “conception of the mode in which Divine wisdom operates in producing the changes of nature.” Moreover, the physical aspect of science is further split into Somatology, defined as “constitution and properties of bodies,” and Mechanics, which deals with the static and dynamic physical systems, creating a blurry line between the physical laws that govern movement of bodies and the hypotheses surrounding the constituents of matter and atoms.

Somatology, today considered a branch of anthropology, was then defined as the constituents and properties of bodies. (Click to enlarge.)

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The Princeton Pullman’s “Filipino Boys”

We’ve previously told you about the Princeton Pullman, a specially-designed railroad car that took faculty and students across North America in the 1920s and 1930s to collect geological specimens and fossils. Today, we’d like to highlight one aspect of these journeys: the Filipino staff who attended to the practical needs of the travelers, one of whom had an impact far exceeding his apparent official role as head chef.

Staff in front of the Princeton Pullman, 1926. Department of Geosciences Records (AC139), Box 39.

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Ivy Hall Library and Higher Education for Princeton Women in the 1870s

As Princeton University celebrates 50 years of undergraduate women, it is worth looking back a bit farther to examine how women pursued higher education in town prior to the mid-twentieth century. A variety of options have been available to Princeton’s women over the century that preceded the first female undergraduate admission in 1969. Some of the earliest records we have found relate to another largely forgotten chapter in Princeton’s history: its law school.

After the College of New Jersey (as the institution was known until assuming the name Princeton University in 1896) established a law school in 1846, benefactor Judge Richard Stockton Field built a brownstone building for its use, but the study of law at Princeton was short-lived. The law school dissolved in 1855, and the building that had housed it became a railroad and canal office.

Ivy Hall, ca. 1870s. Historical Photograph Collection, Grounds and Buildings Series (AC111), Box MP52, Image No. 1837.

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Princeton’s Summer Trips Across North America

Although traveling significant distances is routine for many Princetonians these days, traversing North America was not always as easy as it is now. Our records reveal a variety of both academic and pleasure trips over the years that have used horses, trains, cars, and bicycles to reach their destinations.

Most of the lengthy North American journeys Princetonians took in the 19th century were scientific expeditions, starting with the astronomical expeditions of the early part of century. Most of those were along the east coast, but in July and August 1869, with help from institutional and federal funding, a group of Princetonians took trains to Ottumwa, Iowa, to view a total solar eclipse. It took nearly five days to reach Ottumwa and three days to return. One student later wrote that aside from the spectacular event of the eclipse itself, “The great impression I received was concerning the magnitude of our country. We had passed through very varied scenery for nights and days, travelling over a country large enough to comprise all the kingdoms of Europe, all teeming with life and prosperity, and yet had only passed over about one-third of the extent…”

The first Geological Expedition took its participants (18 students and two professors) further into the American west on an 11-week trek to Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah in the summer of 1877. Three Princeton juniors (William Berryman Scott, Henry Fairfield Osborn, and Francis Speir) had taken a geology course with Arnold Guyot and had read reports about fossil-collection trips Yale had taken. They were determined that Princeton should not be left out of these types of adventures and convinced others to join them.

They took a train to Denver. Princeton had two cars of its own, one for baggage and one for passengers. The expedition party boarded at the Dinky station at about 8:00PM on June 21 and arrived in Denver on June 25 after a few stops along the way, including Chicago and Kansas City. In his memoir, Some Memories of a Palaeontologist, Scott described the journey this way:

Of our journey, novel to most of us though it was, there was not much to be said. The Middle West was not then the busy, prosperous region it has since become, and the principal impression which it made upon me then was one of crudeness and shabbiness. The roads were quagmires of black mud; the towns were chiefly of wood and sadly in need of paint and, though there were a great many fine-looking farms, the journey was a depressing experience. (p. 60-61)

In Denver, the faculty secured horses and wagons and the group set up camp just outside the city, then a town of about 25,000 people, for a few days, where one traveler wrote that they “slept soundly in our blankets using our saddles as pillows.”

The Princeton Scientific Expedition camping out at Fairplay, Colorado, in the summer of 1877. Princeton Scientific Expeditions Collection (AC012), Box 3, Folder 2.

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“The End of a Monastery”: Princeton’s First Female Graduate Students

The Princeton University Graduate Announcement for 1961-1962 warned potential applicants, “Admissions are normally limited to male students.” Yet this “adverbial loophole,” as the Daily Princetonian termed it, left room for some admissions that were not “normal” for Princeton at the time. Within the loophole, dozens of women became degree candidates before the advent of undergraduate coeducation.

Clipping from the Daily Princetonian, October 1, 1962.

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Lawrence Rauch *49 and Operation Crossroads: Atomic Testing at Bikini Atoll

By Rosalba Varallo Recchia

This post is part of a series on education and war related to our current exhibition, “Learning to Fight, Fighting to Learn: Education in Times of War,” on display through June 2018. Please stop by to learn more.

Lawrence Rauch *49, a mathematics graduate student and a research assistant in physics, concentrated on radio telemetry while at Princeton.  He lived in the Graduate College near John Tukey, Rauch’s mentor during this time. Richard Feynman also lived nearby. Rauch was passionate about his studies, but World War II affected his academic experience. He won the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship in 1942, but due to his involvement in war research had to turn it down. Throughout the war, Rauch worked on defense related projects–which had the added benefit of keeping him out of the draft. He was chosen among five other members of the University to attend the first series of post-war nuclear testing being conducted in the Pacific Ocean by the Joint Army and Navy Task Force at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands in 1946.

Lawrence Rausch *49’s ROTC portrait. Lawrence Rausch Papers (AC393), Box 2, Folder 10.

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