Sincerely Yours – Letters from the Archives: Theodore Roosevelt Draws the Line

When Carl Eigenmann (renowned ichthyologist, Indiana University Professor of Zoology and Dean of the Graduate School, and Curator of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh) set out on the 1918 Irwin research expedition to Peru, the possibility of failure was not far from his mind. He even wrote President Bryan a last will and testament of sorts, providing for the disposition of his research, specimens, and equipment “in case the submarines or other vermin should get [him].”

Yet it was not a German submarine that nearly scuttled Eigenmann’s expedition, but the U.S. State Department’s heightened scrutiny of German-Americans during World War I. After departing from Bloomington in June 1918, Eigenmann and his assistants, IU graduates Adele Eigenmann and W. R. Harris, were delayed in the port of New Orleans for five weeks. As Eigenmann, a German-born, naturalized U.S. citizen, put it, “The Passport Division of the State Department, while conceding that my name was euphonic, considered it too Teutonic and refused me passports.”

Indignant at the delay, Eigenmann went straight to the top with his protests. Besides writing to the presidents of IU and the University of Illinois, which granted Harris a fellowship for the journey, he appealed to former president Theodore Roosevelt and asked him to intercede with President Woodrow Wilson on his behalf.

Theodore Roosevelt delivering the 1918 IU Commencement address
Theodore Roosevelt delivering the 1918 IU Commencement address

Roosevelt’s well-known fascination with natural history, in particular with gathering specimens and trophies through large-scale, international expeditions, had made him a natural ally of Eigenmann’s in years past. In 1916, Roosevelt wrote to Gilbert Grosvenor, President of the National Geographic Society, to secure $3000 for the expedition, stating that Eigenmann was “of all the men in this country the one best fit to get the best results out of just this trip.”

Roosevelt also proved himself a friend of Indiana University in general, having given a rousingly patriotic commencement speech in Bloomington in May, 1918. But when Eigenmann requested his assistance in securing passports, he had not counted on the extent of the bad blood between Roosevelt and Wilson, who were campaign rivals during the 1912 presidential election and differed widely in attitudes toward American intervention in Europe during World War I. Roosevelt responded, apologetically, to Eigenmann’s request as follows:

Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Carl H. Eigenmann, July 5, 1918.

SAGAMORE HILL.

July 5th 1918

Dear Dr. Eigenmann,

I am very sorry, but I cannot appeal to Wilson for any human being; and moreover the surest way to hurt you would be to have him think I was interested in you. I am wholly unable to understand the folly or worse of refusing to permit your Peruvian expedition.

With regret [and] indignation,

Faithfully yours,

Theodore Roosevelt

Despite Roosevelt’s unwillingness or inability to help him, Eigenmann’s other contacts were able to exert pressure on the authorities, and the expedition proceeded, albeit with a shortened itinerary. Eigenmann later reported that he suspected a rival scientist as the instigator of the passport controversy. As he wrote in his June, 1919 report to the Board of Trustees, “Someone, who I was informed was interested in having me vacate the position of Curator in the Carnegie Museum, filed charges against my loyalty.”

Who knew that the field of natural history could be so full of intrigue?

The varied research interests of Charles Heiser

Charles B. Heiser, August 1988. (P0030550)
Charles B. Heiser, August 1988. (P0030550)

Charles Heiser was a Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Botany Department from 1947-1986. He received his undergraduate and master’s degrees from Washington University in St. Louis in 1944, and his PhD from the University of California at Berkeley in 1947. Heiser joined the faculty at Indiana University in 1947 and was honored as a Guggenheim Fellow in 1953 and an NSF Postdoctoral Fellow in 1962.

During his professional career, Heiser served as president of the American Society of Plant Taxonomists, vice president of the Society for the Study of Evolution and as a council member for the Society of Economic Botany. Heiser was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, a prestigious distinction given only to the top scholars in the field. Other awards include the New York Botanical Garden’s Henry Allan Gleason Award and the American Society of Plant Taxonomists Asa Gray Award.

How to write a letter of recommendation
How to write a letter of recommendation

As a well-respected authority in the field, Heiser established a network of colleagues. Many of the files in this collection contain 40-50 years of correspondence with these peers. This length of time provides ample opportunity to share personal life stories. While the pieces of communication relate in some way to a research project, several close friends sent research of a different kind. “Fun” articles like the one on National Pun Week or the how-to article on writing a recommendation letter can breathe life into a collection of papers.

Heiser spent many years as a consultant for Tabasco, the pepper sauce company, conducting research on the variety of pepper used to make the sauce. The company was disputing a copyright issue with a Canadian company that marketed a similar sauce with a similar name. Ultimately, the dispute came down to the naming conventions for the varieties of capsicum, since there is a species commonly referred to as Tabasco. Heiser also worked to determine which countries could not grow the variety of pepper, and therefore possibly establish a trademark for the region.

The collection is filled with information on the unexpected uses of the plants Heiser studied. Gourds, for example, were sometimes used as penis sheaths or musical instruments. Boats can be made from totora. Capsicum could be used as a weapon. Other unique items in the collection include a box of seeds–mostly from gourds. One small canister contains numerous seeds from a tobacco plant–originating in 1657!

For further information on Dr. Heiser and his papers, please see the finding aid!