Saturday, September 18, 2010

William C. Darrah ~ A Curious Life

Darrah was never one to drop anything that held his interest.
~ Morey and Lyons, William Culp Darrah (1909-1989):  A Portrait, p. 14 (full citation given in text below)
Anyone with an interest in stereographs is likely to turn to the works of William Culp Darrah, references widely recognized as key for researching or collecting stereographs, those cards with two nearly similar images side by side that, when viewed through a stereoscope, yield a 3D picture.  A previous posting highlighted my interest in them.  They are also known by many other names – stereo cards, stereo views, stereoscopic views, stereographic pictures, or stereograms.

At one time extremely popular in the U.S., stereographs were commercially produced in great numbers from the middle of the 19th century until about 1935.  According to Darrah, “The stereograph, although but one type of photograph, was the first visual mass medium.”  (The World of Stereographs, 1977, p. 2).  He estimated that, in the U.S., upwards of 6 million different views may have been reproduced on the many millions of cards that were printed.  Their subjects ran the gamut from domestic still-lives to train wrecks, from slapstick comedy to teary melodrama, from the bawdy to the religious.  As with any medium aimed at mass entertainment, much dreck was produced and eagerly purchased.  But, there were jewels, including many of the views of natural history subjects.

[The stereograph above is of the crater of the volcano La Soufrière on St. Vincent, one of the Windward Islands.  Manufactured by the Keystone View Company and copyrighted 1903, the pictures show the volcano shortly after it erupted in 1902.]

A man of many interests, Darrah encountered stereographs while researching his biography of geologist and Grand Canyon explorer John Wesley Powell (Powell of the Colorado, 1951).  For some three decades, Darrah avidly collected stereographs; at one juncture, an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 cards arrived monthly at his home.

The Paleontological Connection

Yes, there is a paleontological connection here, other than simply the possibility of fossils being subjects of these three dimensional images, a topic I considered previously.  The link is Darrah himself.  For all his work on stereographs, it was just an avocational activity.  Professionally, Darrah was a widely published paleobotanist, whose career included teaching and researching at Harvard, and ended with a full professorship of biology at Gettysburg College.

Two aspects of his life in the academic world of paleontology intrigue me – the role of the doctorate, and accusations early in his career of plagiarism.  For this posting on Darrah, I have relied on William Culp Darrah (1909-1989):  A Portrait, an extensive essay on Darrah’s life written by his daughter Elsie Darrah Morey of the Morey Paleobotanical Laboratory and Paul C. Lyons of the U.S. Geological Survey.  It appears in Historical Perspective of Early Twentieth Century Carboniferous Paleobotany in North America:  In Memory of William Culp Darrah, Geological Society of America, 1995).  I cite the essay below as Darrah Portrait.

Career in the 1930s

Darrah graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1931, earning a B.S. in geology and minoring in botany.  He did graduate work as a University of Pittsburgh Fellow at the Carnegie Museum, working on its collection of plant fossils.  His own collecting efforts focused on delineating the relationship of the flora of the local Allegheny Formation with the flora from Missouri and Illinois.  In 1934, he joined Harvard’s Botanical Museum, working with the museum’s director botany professor Oakes Ames, an expert on orchids.  Darrah curated Harvard’s botanical fossils, expanding the scope of the collection significantly.  He had teaching responsibilities at Harvard, initially teaching elementary biology and then teaching paleobotany at the graduate level.  Darrah was a young man on a rapid rise within the scientific ranks, starting to publish and be recognized nationally and internationally as an expert in his field of study.

Harvard ~ Dilemma of the Doctorate

Like many embarked on an academic career, Darrah faced the questions of whether and how to deal with the dissertation and oral exam that blocked his path to a doctorate.  He turned to Ames for counsel.  It was an interesting choice, since Ames, who earned an undergraduate degree and a master’s degree from Harvard, had no doctorate.  He wrote to Darrah:

I wish I could give you sound advice pertaining to the embellishment of a Ph.D. degree.  I fear I cannot do so because I am prejudiced.  Many good men and true have ascended the [ladder] of distinction without a degree, having had hawk’s eyes for opportunity. . . . Is not the Ph.D. degree, in nine cases out of ten, the open sesame won by mediocrity from reluctant committees of scholars? . . .

I say in all frankness:  If you have a creditable thesis, and feel that you can bluff your way through an oral examination, get the Ph.D. degree by all means.  If you possess character, inborn ability and a love of your task, you can live it down.  It will not curtail your prospects of success . . . .
~ letter by Ames, as quoted in Darrah Portrait, p. 7

Have to admire the job Ames did on the quality and value of the doctorate.  Ph.D. as embellishmentMediocrity 90% of the time.  Bluff your way through an oral exam.  Unnecessary.  The message was clear.  No Ph.D. for young Mr. Darrah.  And there wasn’t.

Would this advice be proffered by an academic mentor today?  I doubt it.  I wonder, though, given his research bent and his prolific writing, why Darrah didn’t just get it over and done with.  He is quoted as saying, years later, as he looked back at the decision not to complete his doctorate, that “My strongest ambition was to do what I wanted to do . . . .”  (Darrah Portrait, p. 6)

Unfortunately, I think this decision came back, pretty quickly, to bite him.  I detect a tone in several of the comments made about Darrah, in a blowup over plagiarism that engulfed him (more on that below), suggesting that some in the academic community may have been irritated by his rapid rise, perhaps, in part, because he didn’t have that culminating degree.

Boy Wonder Stumbles at Harvard

My friends at Harvard are rallying to the defense of the boy wonder . . . . Darrah should be definitely squelched or punished . . . .
~ letter by paleobotanist and geologist Ralph Works Chaney, as quoted in Darrah Portrait, p. 8

Others went so far as to suggest he should be “spanked” for the sins he had allegedly committed.

Ralph W. Wetmore, biology professor at Harvard, precipitated the crisis when he approached Darrah with the proposition that he fill a void in the academic literature by writing a textbook on paleobotany.  Conveniently, Wetmore was associate editor of botany at the publishing firm of D. Appleton-Century Company, and, in 1936, Darrah and Appleton-Century agreed to proceed with the textbook.  The book was published in 1939, entitled appropriately enough, Textbook of Paleobotany.

I have no tolerance for even the hint of plagiarism, deliberate or not, so I found this part of Darrah’s story painful.

During preparation of the textbook, Darrah wrote to various authors to secure permission to quote from their published works.  Morey and Lyons include one he wrote to Chaney, the scientist who would later conclude that Darrah should be “squelched or punished.”  In it, Darrah asks permission to use and shorten a passage from one of Chaney’s books, and to use a taxonomic listing, also somewhat shortened.  He concluded with a postscript, “Naturally credit and citation will be given.”  (Darrah Portrait, p. 9)

Initially, the textbook was fairly warmly received, but soon the whole enterprise started to unravel.  Chaney was one of the first to pull at a loose string.  After receiving a complimentary copy of the textbook, he wrote to Darrah expressing surprise at how he had used material from one of his articles verbatim without quotation marks.  He lectured Darrah about giving proper credit, and warned that he would be looking more closely at the book.

Chaney seemed to warm to the task, uncovering not only instances of Darrah’s apparent plagiarism involving his own writing, but that of other scientists.  He began a campaign to have the book withdrawn from publication, writing to various authors and publishers concerning his discoveries.  In one letter to the Princeton University Press concerning the use of a book it had published, he mused, “What I am wondering is whether he [Darrah] has copied his whole book from other people.”  (letter from Chaney, Darrah Portrait, p. 9)

I suppose I should not be surprised that it all became very mean spirited.  At one point, Chaney observed in a letter to Winifred Goldring (state paleontologist of New York),

I shall be glad when I have something more important to do than throw mud at this poor innocent child.  On the other hand I have a sufficiently mean disposition to greatly enjoy the tone of your letter in which you tell him [presumably Darrah] what you think of him.
(letter from R.W. Chaney, Darrah Portrait, p. 10)

How did Darrah respond?  Rather poorly.  The excuses and justifications he offered 70 years ago seem to be the same sort of ones offered up today.  At one juncture, he seemed to try to shift the blame to a typist who was hired to type up his lecture notes as content for the textbook.  It is unclear how the typist was to know that passages in Darrah’s lectures came from other works.  At another point, he lamented how Wetmore, who had overseen the project, hadn’t been stronger in his defense of the young author.  Further, he contended that anyone writing on some of these subjects would be turning to the same small array of original source material.  Hard to see that this would excuse using someone else’s work without proper credit, though he appeared to try to do so by suggesting his role was to synthesize the work of others to make it broadly accessible.  Also, Darrah impugned the motives of at least one of his critics, suggesting that publication of his textbook would require the critic to have to rewrite a volume that was in the works.  Admittedly, in the academic world, an accusation of self-interest is likely to have some grounding in truth.

The crisis passed finally when Darrah and those affected agreed that an errata sheet was to be inserted in all copies of the textbook published in the future.  The errata sheet stated that it was a “regrettable error” that material appearing at different places in the book had appeared in others’ works.  Apparently, each such instance was listed.  The sheet flagged Chapters VI (“considerable portion”), XVII (selected pages), and XIX (“much of the material”).

Tempest in a teapot?  Academics striking dramatic and nasty poses because so little is actually at stake?  Wish I could be more sympathetic toward the young Darrah, but the misappropriating was inexcusable and he tried to excuse himself.  But, frankly, I wouldn’t have been prompted to write this posting if the episode hadn’t been given such prominence in the Darrah Portrait, coauthored by his daughter.  Of the 18 pages of text in the essay, fully 4 are devoted to it.  This was not an effort to vindicate Darrah.  Very curious and clearly a momentous event for some involved.  Lesson learned?  Later in life, Darrah commented on this episode, saying, “This experience led me to bend over backwards in every way to give all credit due.”  (Darrah Portrait, p. 12)

War and Post-War Career

Hard to tell what the consequences were for Darrah’s career, given the tumultuous jolt World War II gave to most people’s lives.  During the war, Darrah took leave from his position at Harvard and joined the Raytheon Manufacturing Company, doing engineering and research and development, capitalizing on his mineralogical and geological background.  Though he resigned from the Harvard position in 1946, Darrah continued to research and publish in paleobotany.

1951 was a momentous year.  His biography of Powell came out, he resigned from Raytheon, and, having resolved to strike out on his own, he relocated to a farm outside of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  He soon found himself active in the academic community of Gettysburg College, ultimately joining the biology department as an associate professor, still without that doctorate.  He later became a full professor, retiring from the college in 1974.  Gettysburg College awarded him an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters in 1977.

Final Thought on Stereographs – Piracy

To return to the venue in which I first encountered Darrah – stereographs – and where I find him without blemish, I am struck by how similar the history of stereographs is with that being traced today by the media of digital music and video.  In both cases, technological development fueled the rapid spread of mass entertainment.  Large, international concerns produced and marketed the technology.  Okay, the idea that enterprises should be organized to rent stereoscopes and stereographs didn’t take off, but, think Netflix, anyway.

And, in still yet another way, the parallel between stereographs and today’s digital media is very arresting (pun intended) – piracy.

Consider this from Darrah,

Almost from the outset, stereography was a publishing business, selling photographic images.  This cannot be over-emphasized.  Negatives were bought, resold, multiplied, copied legitimately and pirated illegitimately.  Many of the most famous photographers purchased negatives and advertised them as their own.  The indispensable work of assistants was seldom properly credited.
(The World of Stereographs, p. 6)

After discussing the process for making a backup copy of the original negative, Darrah noted,

It was a slight step from the copy negative as a safeguard against damage or loss during production to copying a print without permission.  Although dishonest, it was not necessarily illegal.  Many views had never been copyrighted, and for many others copyrights had expired.  The flood of cheap copy issues in the late 1870’s and 1880’s included every type of appropriation of other peoples’ work.
(The World of Stereographs, p. 8)

Fascinating glimpse of technology and business at work more than a century ago.

Knowing his history, these words from Darrah have an added weight.  And a final note of irony.  In middle age, according to the preface to the 1997 reprint edition of The World of Stereographs, Darrah lost most of the sight in one eye, largely depriving him of binocular vision.  As a result, he couldn’t see the full visual beauty of the stereograph.

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