Searching for F. E. Dean, Part 3

Fort Sumner Leader masthead

In part 1, I began with Woodrow Wilson’s famous endorsement of evolution, which Winterton Curtis quoted in his unheard testimony in the Scopes trial. Curtis solicited Wilson’s opinion in 1922, because a former student of his, F. E. Dean, lost his job as the superintendent of schools in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, after he complained about the local school board’s decision to prohibit the teaching of evolution. In part 2, I explained that the most ready source of information about the incident is in a paper by A. G. Cock published in the Journal of Heredity in 1989. Cock relied on material—a memorandum attached to Curtis’s letter to Bateson and the front page of three issues of the Fort Sumner Leader (the local newspaper) sent by Curtis—from the archive of the biologist William Bateson, whom Curtis also consulted about the Dean incident. But naturally I wanted to see it for myself.

There were only two avenues of research that presented themselves: examine the coverage in the local newspapers, especially the Fort Sumner Leader, or examine the material in the Bateson archive. Only three libraries seem to have holdings of the now-defunct newspaper, and they’re all in New Mexico. On the other hand, the relevant tranches of Bateson’s papers are at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, Britain, and Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada. The research travel budget of The Science League of America blog presently consists of two pennies, a paper clip, and a dead moth. (No, it isn’t a peppered moth.) Fortunately, Donald Forsdyke of Queen’s University, a Bateson expert, was kind enough to put me in touch with Queen’s University’s archivist Paul Banfield, who quickly and efficiently provided me with the material I wanted, saving me the necessity of squandering the negotiable portion of my budget.

With no further ado, then. The most important item is from the Fort Sumner Leader, August 11, 1922, and consists of a letter from Dean, headlined “The Schools and the Question of Evolution,” dated from 506 Maple Ave., Columbia, Missouri, on August 5, 1922, and addressed to “the People of Fort Sumner.” Dean writes:

It seems only fair to me that a superintendent in my position should give to the public some statement of his position.

About a month ago I received from the School Board a copy of a resolution passed by them forbidding the teaching of evolution in the Fort Sumner schools, and calling for the resignation of any teacher violating it.

I accepted the resolution, for there was no getting anywhere thru [sic] argument at long distance. Besides, the word “evolution” needed to be defined as used in the resolution, and I hoped to be able to convince the Board that I had not been teaching the the [sic] doctrine of evolution in the form attributed to me.

Still further, violation of the resolution had to be defined. A good many of the texts used in every high school teach evolution. Almost any Modern History or English literature devotes considerable space to Darwin and the movement that began with him. It is impossible to find a text in Sociology or Psychology that doesn’t devote considerable space, usually a whole chapter to evolution. In fact, all modern science, even in elementary texts in physics and Chemistry, is written from the evolutionary point of view.

It is even true as LeConte says, that evolution is more than half of modern thought. [Not exactly: Joseph LeConte, in his Evolution and its Relation to Religious Thought (1889), wrote that evolution “is literally one half of all science.”] It is nearer the truth to say that there is no entering even the vestibule of modern thought except thru [sic] a knowledge of evolution, Modern History, Ltierature Philosophy and science are fairly saturated, with the doctrine. Schools cannot avoid teaching it, for they cannot secure a library nor texts that are not full of it. It is taught openly in every college and university of high grade in the world. And this is true even of the divinity schools. Colleges that are not free, because of their constituencies, teach it guardedly for their texts teach it and their professors believe in it. It was therefore a question of deciding what specific thing had given offense and how it might be avoided. I thought I knew that this specific thing was what people who understand nothing of evolution call the “Monkey Theory.” I have never taught that theory.

There was absolutely no possibility of threshing out definitions and limitations by correspondence. I saw no reason why this could not be done after my return, and in a way that would not compel me to cut out portions of the texts. I even considered the pos[s]ibility of leaving out sociology and psychology, the sciences whose evolutionary base is most manifest.

I wrote to State Superintendent Conway for an opinion on the legal power of the Board to pass such a resolution, for in case of serious disagreements as to definitions and limitations the resolution contained endless possibilities of persecution. In such a case I wanted something back of me, no matter what my motives, I had perfect right to ask for such an opinion. The opinion as rendered by the State Attorney General, was pub[li]shed.

The Board then demanded my “immedi[at]e resignation” on the ground of my manifest insincerity in agreeing to the resolution and then going over their heads to the Attorney General.

I took time for consideration and in the meantime received letters from certain members of the Board, assuring me of the friendly feeling of the Board for me, and further that they were driven to take the action they did by an outbur[st] of public sentiment which they did not dare resist.

These letters assured me that my usefulness was at an end in Fort Sumner and that if I insisted on holding to my contract and returning the school would be torn to pieces. I was also told that the State Auditor had it in mind to cut my salary $600.00.

I think I understand the situation fairly well. I trust there are a sufficient number of people in Fort Sumner who understand it. It is pretty evident that there is more in the situation than an “aroused public sentiment.” I well believe that a majority of the people of Fort Sumner are with me. I KNOW that practically all of the boys and girls of the high school are. [Emphasis in original.] Were I able to return and state my case fully nearly everybody would be with me. But my return just at this time is impossible, so to avoid several more weeks of anxiety, I resigned.

The fight is no longer mine. I have pioneered long enough. I have fought for the rights of teachers and my own rights, and have slaved for my schools till I am worn out. If the community wants this sort of injustice done to itself, or will even stand for it[,] it is none of my affairs.

But it is past my understanding that such a community as Fort Sumner will try to cut its high school loose from all the higher institutions of learning in the country, and it is incredible to me that it will allow a superintendent who served it for two years faithfully and was elected for a third year to be thrown out in such a way as this when practically all other superintendencies are filled.

I shall always remember the many good friends I have in Fort Sumner. They will please accept my thanks for all they have done for me. Especially shall I remember the fine boys and girls I taught there[.] I never had finer. I turned out two classes of seniors who are the salt of the earth.


I have quoted Dean’s letter in full—by now it is out of U.S. copyright, so it’s fair game. Without knowing how public the controversy was before the letter was published, it’s hard to know how much of a bombshell it was. But judging from the next issue of the Fort Sumner Leader, there was quite a controversy by the time it was public. That will be the topic of part 4.

Glenn Branch
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Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of NCSE.
We can't afford to lose any time when it comes to the future of science education.

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