shadow_tr
Tulanian Logo

The Secret History

January 11, 2004

Suzanne Johnson
sjohnson@tulane.edu
Michael DeMocker

Conceived on Folly Island and born in the fever-ravaged wards of Charity Hospital, reared among epidemics, and surviving war, violence, corruption and neglect--this is the story of the University of Louisiana, the institution that would grow up to be Tulane.

tulf03_hist_main_1A story based on a 1934 unpublished history of the university by alumnus Samuel Lang Look around at the New Orleans of 2003. Brush aside the traffic, crime and other detritus of the modern urban center and there she is: a grand old city of ancient oaks and distinctive architecture. Protected by levees and mindful of her past, to visitors she is a picturesque reminder of the genteel South they know from legend.

Rewind 170 years and take a reality check. In 1834, New Orleanians weren't sitting on their galleries and sipping mint juleps. They teetered precariously between prosperity and annihilation by forces they could not control--the busy port brought economic success to a city that had no drinking water. Without adequate drainage, floodwaters often overtook the muddy, unpaved streets.

The intense heat, little ameliorated by any breezes coming in from the surrounding swampland, stifled spirits and helped breed mosquitoes--their buzzing, high-pitched drone seen only as a nuisance by the people who were dying from the fevers they bore. The people were, by and large, illiterate. Prosperous planters and merchants saw no need for their sons to waste time with books; men needed practical and fertile wives, not educated women. There were only a scant handful of lower-level schools and those few who desired advanced learning or professional training had to look elsewhere.

The New Orleanians of 1834 also had experienced three years of extraordinary hardship beyond their usual measure. A severe drought in 1831 disrupted crops and caused financial distress. Cholera ravaged the city in 1832 and '33, followed by bouts of yellow fever. In 1834, a financial panic threatened to shut down commerce.

Charity Begins at Home

New Orleans already had a reputation by 1830 as a "City of Death," its virtues and vices spread by word of mouth between tradesmen and shippers traveling routes to and from the Northeast.

Certainly it was known in Philadelphia, where a young Austrian immigrant named Charles Luzenberg had recently received his medical degree and was earning a reputation for his unorthodox methods of treatment. Hearing of the medical challenges and wild claims of fortunes to be made in New Orleans, Luzenberg pulled up stakes and headed south in 1829.

New Orleans also beckoned Warren Stone, who had recently left his widowed mother's farm to attend medical school in Massachusetts and open a practice in upstate New York. There, he encountered desperate Canadian cholera patients seeking treatment. Intrigued with the disease and the potential to use his considerable surgical skills in its treatment, he boarded a ship called The Amelia in 1831 and headed for New Orleans.

But his journey took an unexpected detour. Sailing down the Eastern Seaboard, The Amelia encountered a heavy storm that raged for days, forcing passengers to take refuge in the ship's dark and crowded hold. By the time The Amelia ran aground on Folly Island, a few miles off the coast of Charleston, S.C., cholera already had claimed the lives of 25 percent of the passengers, and many more were ill. A makeshift patient colony was set up, and Warren Stone worked tirelessly to help his fellow passengers survive.

He was joined by a young Charleston physician, Thomas Hunt, who had heard of the Folly Island plight. Stone and Hunt formed a fast friendship that was to span the rest of their lives. The cholera crisis waning, Stone continued to New Orleans, leaving Hunt to recuperate in Charleston from his own, mild case of cholera. In the coming year, Stone wrote to his friend about the challenges and frustrations of his work at the Charity Hospital in New Orleans, where in July 1832, some 6,000 people had died in a 20-day period. Within a year, Hunt joined his friend in New Orleans.

Also drawn to the Crescent City was John Hoffman Harrison, a young doctor who had recently completed his studies at the University of Maryland and was looking for adventure and fortune. New Orleans looked like just the place. By 1834, these four young doctors were all working at Charity Hospital, each bringing his own strengths to the group.

Luzenberg was the bold, experimental physician, unafraid of new techniques and methods. Stone was a skilled surgeon. Harrison was an organizer. And Hunt was a visionary: he dreamed of New Orleans as a place where doctors could train in the heart of the beast, where the finest physicians could gather to attack and defeat the scourges of cholera and yellow fever. He dreamed of a school, and his friends embraced that dream enthusiastically. The four young doctors began pooling their money, bringing into their secret plans another surgeon working at Charity, Augustus Cenas, and Charity physicians Thomas Ingalls, James Monroe Mackie and Edwin Bathurst Smith.

On Sept. 29, 1834, the local newspaper revealed what the young doctors had been whispering about after hours and in the corridors: an advertisement announcing the formation of the Medical College of Louisiana. It was a startling ad, a brash ad. It not only announced the formation of a new school by a small group of doctors all under the age of 30--it divided the blame for the city's appalling health situation between the living conditions of the citizens and the ineptitude of the local physicians.

Referring to the New Orleans medical establishment as "quacks," the ad promised the new medical college would bring "shame and ruin to doctors with long careers in murder [during which] they have contrived to pour drugs of which they know nothing into bodies of which they know less." Needless to say, the ad did not go over well with the "quacks" to whom it was aimed. In subsequent editions of the newspaper, ironically, the established New Orleans physicians countered not with a defense of their own credentials but with arguments that the new college would find no local students who would qualify.

Undeterred, the founders arrived in January 1835 at the Unitarian Church (at the current site of St. Charles Avenue and Gravier Street), led by a deposed Presbyterian minister and leading liberal of his day, the Rev. Theodore Clapp. Large crowds, propelled primarily by curiosity, attended the opening lectures by Luzenberg and Hunt. More important, out of those large crowds came eight students. After big discussions, pro and con, among the Louisiana state leaders, the state legislature, on April 4, 1835--three months after the school's unofficial opening at the Congregationalist Church--passed a bill incorporating the Medical College of Louisiana as a public school.

The bill named a board to administer the school but committed no financial support--a point that would haunt the struggling venture for the next 50 years.

Growing Pains

The first session of the Medical College of Louisiana pointed out some serious needs. First, where were the students to meet? For the first few years, classes would be held in private offices and homes, and students would literally have to race between venues in order to find their next class, snaking a pattern of white coats through the muddy city streets.

Still, the fledgling school grew--to 18 students in the second session and 22 in the third, boosted by an advertising campaign in Alabama newspapers that brought students in from Mobile and Montgomery. Of the 27 students in the fourth session, only seven were from Louisiana. The rest were from Alabama and Mississippi, and--by virtue of a growing reputation--from New York, Connecticut and New Jersey.

For nine years the school thrived--with no building and yet to see a dime of support from the state legislature. Faculty members, who were not paid a salary but who received a small commission based on the number of students who enrolled in their classes, gave public lectures at night to support themselves. But the biggest problem was space. Students spent more time running from place to place for classes than in the classes themselves.

Finally, in 1843, the state finally made an agreement with the college. In exchange for the faculty working at Charity Hospital for no pay for 10 years and the admittance of one indigent person from each parish in Louisiana into the school, the state would provide a 10-year lease on a plot of land in the section of New Orleans that, at that time, held the buildings of the state capitol. The faculty and board managed to raise $15,000 and built the college's first building at the corner of Common and Philippa streets in what is now New Orleans' Central Business District.

With a building in place, and the student population growing thanks to advertising in papers throughout the southeastern United States, the Medical College of Louisiana was off and running.

'Let Us Plant the Tree'

Throughout its life as the Medical College of Louisiana and then the University of Louisiana, the school often seemed to receive neglect (at best) or antagonism (at worst) from the state legislature. But there was one notable exception that emerged in the 1840s--former secretary of state George Eustis. Eustis' support of the college actually went back to its very beginnings, for he foresaw what the founders of the medical college did not--the need for a broad academic university for the state of Louisiana. Few of his former fellow legislators shared his vision, but that did not prevent Eustis from gathering a cadre of supporters and proposing to the legislature in its 1845 session a university, incorporating the Medical College of Louisiana, to be known as the University of Louisiana.

"Let us at least plant the tree of knowledge," Eustis told the legislators, as well as anyone else who would listen as he spoke to numerous clubs and organizations throughout the city.

Ironically, among the attendees at Eustis' 1845 speeches were two strangers who would each play a major role in the proposed school's fortunes: a 42-year-old New Jersey merchant named Paul Tulane, and a young New Orleans woman named Josephine LeMonnier, who would soon marry a Kentuckian, Warren Newcomb. Finally, in February 1847, the Louisiana Legislature passed Act 49 of 1847, "An Act to Establish in the City of New Orleans the University of Louisiana."

The school would add a law department and, eventually, a collegiate (academic) department and preparatory school, to its established medical department. The university was established; it still, however, was not funded.

A Star is Born

Five days after Act 49 was passed, the first board meeting was assembled by Louisiana Gov. Isaac Johnson in the law offices of Melvin M. Cohen, 22 Exchange Place, New Orleans. Board members were named; George Eustis, appropriately, was elected the first chairman. The next order of business was to find a president willing to take the reins of a new university for no salary. In July, Francis Lister Hawks accepted the position, turning down an offer of the presidency at William and Mary in order to stay in New Orleans.

Other "firsts" would take place in the next few years: - The university's first donation of cash came in the form of $500 from wealthy Jewish merchant and philanthropist Judah Touro, to cultivate and award scholarship in the Hebrew language and classics. - The university adopted as its seal a reproduction of the seal of Louisiana, with its Latin inscription of sacrifice and service. This seal was later reconfigured with figures representing Paul Tulane's French ancestry to form the current university seal. - Though the academic department of the university was still not formed, the first academic course took place in 1848 as Louis Dufau, recently arrived from France, taught a course on the history of his native country.

Financial tensions between the board, the faculty and the state legislature continued to grow, however, even as the university thrived. The University of Louisiana board proved ineffectual in petitioning the legislature for money to start the academic department, repair buildings--or anything else, for that matter. The medical and law faculties, in the meantime, ignored any input from the board and made their own petitions to the state. When their financial requests were granted, and those of the board were not--as was often the case--hard feelings resulted. And what of the original founders of the Medical College of Louisiana?

The visionary Thomas Hunt, plagued off and on by ill health, continued to serve the medical department of the University of Louisiana as its dean. Warren Stone continued on the medical faculty. John Harrison died of tuberculosis in 1848 after seeing the university formed. And Charles Luzenberg had a disagreement with Stone and left the school in 1843, never to again communicate with his former colleagues, although many of his descendants attended the university in subsequent years.

Academics vs. Professionals

Late in 1849, the University of Louisiana found itself without a president when Francis Hawkes resigned and left for New York to become rector of the Church of the Mediator. He left with pent-up frustration, writing in his report of that year, "It was distracting to want so earnestly to lift up a people, yet to stand helplessly by, observing them ignorant of the opportunity they were edging off the road and into oblivion." The people to whom he referred were the people of Louisiana and New Orleans, who still showed little interest in, or reverence for, higher learning.

The efforts to begin a lower school that would prepare local students for university study had attracted little interest, and there was no money available either to run it or begin the long-planned academic department. The board was ineffective, neither commanding the respect or demanding the obedience of the law and medicine faculties. Tensions boiled over in 1849-50 when the state legislature again honored the medical department's requests for funds while denying those of the university board.

Further, before they even received the state funds, the medical faculty appointed a representative to travel to Europe to purchase what they needed on credit. The representative, Professor Wedderburn, traveled throughout the continent, purchasing, among other items, 350 muscular dissections copied from the anatomical cabinet of the Grand Duke of Tuscany at Florence, Italy; wax reproductions of the family eye and skin diseases collection of Mr. Towne of London; and Auzon's models in anatomy and a cabinet of human bones in Paris. Board member William Hort said the medical faculty were "insolent" and called for disciplinary measures, but no one could quite figure out what those measures might be.
 
Into the maelstrom walked the new president, Judge Theodore Howard McCaleb, who took office on June 25, 1850, and began to try and make the preparatory program and academic department a reality. Mathematician Claudius Wistar Sears was named head of the department, and a grand opening was scheduled for November. But such a rigid entrance exam was set up, along with the requirement of "testimonials of good moral character," that no one qualified for entrance.

The prep school took off, but the academic department was again postponed until 1851, when it opened with 14 students after changing the entrance exams to pass/fail as long as the student could prove his moral character. Tuition was set at $175 a year. The law and medical faculties, meanwhile, continued to exercise the real power within the institution, particularly after Thomas Hunt returned to the medical deanship in 1850 after an illness and a brush with the law during which he had killed a local newspaperman in a duel over a political disagreement.

The War Within

Hunt's duel was not an isolated incident. Increasingly, faculty and students were drawn into the constant talk of war and secession. Political economy professor James DeBow, in his 1850 review, summarized the situation as tense but resolved: "There is no need for noise, the final contest is just ahead, and we could not avoid it if we would, nor would if we could." The University of Louisiana got an unexpected boost in attendance from the talk of war as Southern students began withdrawing from Northern institutions and looking for schools closer to home.

The university advertised its medical school as "the finest in the South," catering to this newly biased market. But if politics boosted enrollment, yellow fever threatened to decimate it. By 1853, the health report for the state said, "Our great misfortune here is that the people are ignorant and kept ignorant." Drainage was poor, open sewers ran along the streets, trash piled up in public areas, and people continued to die. Cart drivers made daily rounds crying, "Who has dead to bury?" Business dried up, and animal carcasses rotted in the streets. A crime wave competed with the escalating suicide rate.

Finally, University of Louisiana medical professor Edward H. Barton and his fellow physicians took matters in their own hands, establishing a sanitary system for sewerage, arranging for inexpensive bath houses to be set up, and seeing that quarantines were enforced. Still, yellow fever claimed 15,787 souls that summer. Meanwhile, President McCaleb had problems of his own. No one asked his advice, he had no authority over board members or faculty, and he wasn't paid a salary. When he resigned in 1853 and joined the law faculty, the board didn't bother to replace him.

Essentially powerless and unable to squeeze any money out of the state legislature, the board was a virtual revolving door for the next few years until it simply ceased to function in 1860 not because of impending war, but because its members quit coming to the meetings.

Meanwhile, ironically, the university's law and medical departments continued to thrive with the swell of returning Southern students. By 1860 the medicine department boasted 404 students, law 54, the collegiate (academic) department an unprecedented 400, and the prep school 100. Even as the administration foundered, the university enterprise rode on a wave of prosperity. As university historian Samuel Lang notes, "No one suspected the university would collapse within a year."

The War Without

New Orleans has a reputation as being less touched by the Civil War than most Southern cities, and it is true that in terms of direct combat it was on the outside looking in. But its people were not immune to the war's effects, nor the destructiveness of its aftermath.

Thirteen days before the war began, dean Randell Hunt (brother of Thomas) presided over the law school commencement. At the end of the ceremony, both professors and students shouldered Confederate muskets and marched to war. Only the medical department opened in the fall of 1861 but its enrollment had dropped from 404 to 61. In the next term it went to zero as by March 5, 1862, a month before Admiral David G. Farragut's Federal fleet captured New Orleans, every single medical student and professor joined the Confederate army.

No records tell the full story of the war's human cost to the University of Louisiana, though battle records show individual stories of bravery amid combat. Likely, the university community fared similarly to that of the University of Mississippi, where 90 percent of alumni, faculty and students fought in the war, and 25 percent were killed between 1861 and 1865.

Deconstructing Reconstruction

In early 1865, with the war not yet officially over and Union soldiers prowling the streets, Warren Stone began a series of lectures on surgery in New Orleans, unofficially marking the resumption of business at the University of Louisiana. Space was again a problem, as the university's building on Common had been occupied by Union forces for three years and then used as a school for black children by the Freedmen's Bureau. The building was dilapidated and had been ransacked of all furniture, books, equipment and records.

The university board reconvened in 1866 and asked the legislature for $53,000 to refurbish the building; they were given $25,000. Classes officially began on Nov. 11, 1865. Thomas Hunt returned to New Orleans after the war and was named Tulane's third president. Described as "tall, handsome and full of wit," Hunt was an effective orator, as evidenced by his ability, year after year, to appropriate state funds for the medical department.

As president, he now lent the full power of his intellect to the university as a whole, and results were not long in coming. He arranged for the state library to be housed at the university for use by the law department, and threw his full support behind the collegiate department.

While each of the University of Louisiana founders had their strengths, Hunt might have been the strongest of all. "Stone was a great surgeon," historian Lang writes. "Luzenberg a pioneer in advanced methods of operating. Debow gave to higher education a new ideal in commercial instruction. Barton won recognition for his work in sanitary science. Eustis led the way in gaining public recognition for the university. Thomas Hunt combined all these qualities in a type of leadership which inspired many others on their way to greatness. Of all the men who sacrificed and achieved glory for the University of Louisiana, Thomas Hunt ranks foremost."

Sadly, Hunt presided over only one commencement, that of 1866, before falling ill and dying within the year. On his deathbed, he wrote a final report urging the immediate organization of a "department of letters." A month later, on April 30, 1867, his brother, Randell Hunt, assumed the presidency. The new President Hunt found a poor situation awaiting him. The board had decided that conditions did not warrant reopening the collegiate department, and several board members had resigned. A $10,000 funding request to the state legislature was met with a response of $3,000. Things were not any better with the state as Reconstruction took hold and chaos reigned.

A University of Louisiana student, the son of founding faculty member Augustus Cenas, was shot when a racially motivated riot broke out during the 1866 constitutional convention next door to the medical department. It was only after two more years, in the 1868 convention, that equal rights were granted to black citizens, including their right to public education. The constitution also recognized the university's need for state funding and specified that the proceeds of a poll tax go to the school, though it took 10 years and a lawsuit for that to happen. The constitution was ratified in March 1868 as 26-year-old Henry Clay Warmoth became governor and Louisiana rejoined the Union.

Warmoth's summary of the state of affairs he inherited was appalling: "Our public roads are mud trails. The city of New Orleans has but four paved streets. New Orleans is a dirty, impoverished and hopeless city, with a mixed, ignorant, corrupt and bloodthirsty gang in control. It is flooded with lotteries, gambling dens and licensed brothels. Many of the city officials, as well as the police force, are thugs and murderers. Violence is rampant, and hardly a day passes that someone is not shot, out under the oaks, in defense of his honor. The sugar, cotton and rice planters are without money or credit, and their lands and buildings, having been neglected for four years, are in a state of dilapidation; their labor is disorganized; their mules and horses are gone, and implements scattered. The people are almost without hope."

Warmoth didn't have long to worry about it, as he was impeached in 1872 and replaced temporarily by his lieutenant governor, PBS Pinchback. Pinchback, a mulatto, was named acting governor of Louisiana and served for just over a month. While the lower schools struggled with questions of desegregation, the University of Louisiana had different problems. The boom in student growth before the war had a corresponding drop afterward as economic conditions caused people to leave the city in droves. Still, small steps continued to take place.

In 1870, President Randell Hunt was authorized to confer all degrees at commencement, and the first universitywide commencement was held that spring. The long battle of wills between the faculty and the board was about to come to a head, however. In March 1872, 12 law graduates were denied diplomas by the faculty, led by Professor Carleton Hunt (son of Thomas Hunt and nephew of the president). The 12 students appealed to the board that they should receive their degrees if a majority of the faculty voted for it, even it was not unanimous, and the board agreed.

Carleton Hunt, displeased with the board's interference, went to acting governor Pinchback and made an appeal. Pinchback was happy to comply, seeing a means of gaining control of the university. All board members but one were ousted, and replaced with a board handpicked by the acting governor. The board included two black members, Pinchback himself, and one other man. The new board then backed Hunt's decision and denied the degrees to the 12 students. Shortly afterward, law dean Roselius resigned and Carleton Hunt replaced him as the new dean. It is not known how long the two black board members remained; they did not appear to have been directly involved in the affairs of the university past 1872. Subsequent university histories have left this incident out altogether.

The LSU Takeover Attempt

In 1874, the state created a new institution, the Agricultural and Mechanical College, from land grant monies. It was briefly housed at the University of Louisiana while long-term facilities were sought in St. Bernard Parish. Meanwhile, Louisiana State University, founded in 1853 and growing rapidly under legislative favor, moved to take over the new agricultural college. The legislature approved the merger and the new entity became the Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College at Baton Rouge.

LSU President Thomas Duckett Boyd had another target in his sights as well. At that time, LSU had no medical and law departments, and the University of Louisiana had nothing else. The collegiate department still had not been revived since the war. Boyd lobbied in the capital, and a resolution to merge the institutions was passed by both house and senate. But no one had counted on the University of Louisiana getting a board chairman who was ready to claim the power of his position.

John Hanson Kennard, an 1858 law department graduate, took over the board in 1877 and went to work. He sued the state for the poll tax proceeds approved a decade earlier and pulled in $33,000 for the school--it was the richest the institution had ever been. A year later, another yellow fever outbreak notwithstanding, Kennard also hired three faculty members--the first at the university to receive a regular salary--and opened the Academical Department, offering languages, literature, math and science.

He hired a 23-year-old Frenchman named Alcee Fortier to revive the old preparatory school as a "feeder" for the new department. Enrollment began to grow once again, and in 1880-81, the medical department had 204 students, the preparatory school 178, academics 87 and law 35.

Under Kennard's leadership, the university president, Randell Hunt, also became a salaried employee at $1,000 a year, and the university received an important donation of 18 electric lamps for the fledgling Academical Department from Thomas A. Edison, Esq., of New York. And Kennard rallied local citizenry--notably, 100 influential New Orleanians--urging the legislature not to merge the University of Louisiana and LSU. Whether his petition would have been effective or the legislature would eventually have passed its resolution to combine the institutions will never be known.

U.S. Sen. Randall Lee Gibson, an 1855 law alumnus, was about to come to New Orleans with an offer they couldn't refuse. The Benefactor Tobias Gibson of Terrebone Parish was a leading sugar planter in pre-Civil War Louisiana, and he, along with colleague R.R. Montgomery, became friends with a wealthy New Jersey merchant who had made his fortune in New Orleans.

The merchant, Paul Tulane, had returned to New Jersey at the war's outset to protect his fortune, but he still had a great fondness for the city in which he had spent so much of his adult life. By early 1882, he had a plan, and sent word summoning to a meeting Sen. Randall Lee Gibson--son of his friend Tobias and son-in-law of R.R. Montgomery, who Tulane called his "best friend in the world." He outlined to Gibson his plan--the donation of a large amount of land in the city of New Orleans, its proceeds to be used to educate the young men of the area. Gibson, he said, must oversee its use. Gibson was torn.

As a senator, he did not feel he could ethically accept such an offer, yet he recognized the benefits to his home state. He pondered the situation during a vacation in Europe, and returned with a counter-offer. He would help Tulane set up the institution by establishing a board of administrators to oversee it. Tulane agreed, and the wheels were set in motion. Paul Tulane hand-picked his first board members, including Gibson and 16 other leading New Orleanians, and sent a letter dated May 2, 1882, incorporating the new institution. The land he provided to endow it was valued at $363,000 and would provide an annual revenue of $37,130.

Tulane also set certain stipulations for his new school. He wanted it in New Orleans, and he wanted it free from political influence or dependence. So he resisted early suggestions that his gift be used to endow the existing University of Louisiana, despite an interest from the university itself. Though Tulane did make a gift of a building to the University of Louisiana the next year, he continued to want a separate institution.

The Tulane University of New Orleans was planned by the new board of administrators of the Tulane Educational Fund, and the former president of LSU, William Preston Johnston, was brought in as president of the institution in 1883. Behind the scenes, Kennard and a number of others continued to lobby for the Tulane endowment to be applied to the University of Louisiana. The state legislature finally became convinced it would be an advantageous move, even if the state made tax concessions. Offers and counteroffers were negotiated, the legislature agreed and, finally, so did Paul Tulane.

Louisiana Act 43 of 1884, signed on July 29 of that year by Gov. Samuel Douglas McEnery, placed complete control of the University of Louisiana in the hands of the Board of Administrators of the Tulane Educational Fund. It further established the university and its property as exempt from taxes, and that one legislative scholarship would be offered each year to a deserving student from each representative and district.

Act 43 also specified that the governor of Louisiana, the state superintendent of education and the mayor of New Orleans would be ex-officio members of the board, without voting status or undue influence. And, finally, the benefactor's name was prefixed to the name of the existing institution.

Tulanian

Citation information:

Page accessed: Wednesday, October 01, 2014
Page URL: http://tulane.edu/news/tulanian/the_secret_history.cfm

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 website@tulane.edu