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The Great Americans – Mostly

What do Matthew Maury, John Lothrop Motley, and William Morton have in common (besides last names that begin with “M”)?

They are all relatively unknown today, even to some history nerds. And they are all honored at the Hall of Fame for Great Americans in the Bronx.

What? Never heard of this august temple dedicated to true American heroes? Ok, so it’s not exactly Cooperstown or Canton. I had come across it before, doing research for one of my books. But as the New York Times recently reported, the hall has hit some tough times, largely ignored by tourists and its current host, Bronx Community College. But once the Hall of Fame, the first national hall in the country, was a big deal.

The hall was founded in 1900 by New York University with a $250,000 donation from philanthropist Helen Gould Shepard, daughter of infamous robber baron Jay Gould. Her gift stipulated that candidates had to be dead at least 10 years, which was later extended to 25. A college of 100 electors chose the first 50 inductees, with plans to single out other great Americans every five years. Busts of the members sit along a semi-circular colonnade that overlooks the Harlem River. In a democratic touch, any American could nominate someone for induction, as long as the candidate was a U.S. citizen. Nominees needed 60 votes to get in.

Sources agree that at one point, the hall was a popular tourist site. But after 1976, no more elections were held, and there was no money to erect plaques or busts for the last four of the hall’s 102 inductees. NYU sold the site in 1973, and as the NYT article says, the “busts tarnished, soot gathered, and the Hall of Fame slowly slipped into irrelevance.”

So who are some of the great Americans honored here? Not everyone is as obscure as the names I listed above, and plenty of the usual suspects got the nod. Among presidents, we have Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, both Adamses, Jackson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. Military heroes include Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Ulysses S. Grant (surely he was not rewarded for his presidency, right?). For science and invention, there’s Edison, Agassiz, Morse, Westinghouse, and the Wright brothers. Artists of all stripes include Twain and his Hartford neighbor Stowe, Emerson, Thoreau, Whistler, Whitman, and Sousa. Other inductees come from the fields of medicine, law, education, and social reform.

The Pathfinder

And what about my less-well known trio above? I had never heard of the first two. Matthew Maury was a U.S. naval officer who became a well-regarded oceanographer. His knowledge of winds and currents helped American captains take the fastest routes across the oceans and earned him the nickname, “Pathfinder of the Seas.” When the Civil War began, he served as the South’s naval commander. He spent time in England, helping the South acquire new vessels.

The founder of Motley Crue

Mystery Great American number two, John Lothrop Motley, was not as dynamic a chap. No, Motley was that most useless of all things in America, a historian (though he served briefly as a diplomat). The product of a fine Massachusetts family, Motley tried his hand at fiction, failed fairly miserably, then dedicated most of his adult life to the study of Dutch history, focusing on the rise of the republic after years of Spanish rule. Yes, the kind of work guaranteed to thrill 21st-century Americans.

The dentist

And finally, William Thomas Green Morton, whose name I did know. Morton was a dentist, but not just any dentist. Morton, some folks believe, was the first to use ether to anesthetize a patient. In reality, the credit should go to Georgia surgeon Crawford Long, who gave ether to a patient several years before Morton. The dentist, however, wrote about his experiment while Long did not, ensuring Morton’s place in the Hall of Fame. Morton got the idea for using anesthetics after watching a failed experiment conducted by his former dental teacher, Horace Wells, who thought nitrous oxide could be useful as a painkiller. Wells was right, of course, but the patient he treated during his public experiment yelped in pain, due to faulty administration of the drug. Wells was discredited, leaving the path open for Morton to take credit for being the first to successfully use anesthesia (Long notwithstanding).

Perhaps Long should have Morton’s spot. Some say Morton was more interested in fame and money than medical breakthroughs, though he did treat many wounded soldiers during the Civil War. Wells, meanwhile, had a tragic end; his dogged attempts to end suffering during surgery led to experiments with chloroform and addiction to the drug. In a stupor, he threw acid on two prostitutes, was sent to prison, and killed himself. OK, so maybe not a candidate for the hall, though historians suggest he had higher moral character than his former pupil, Morton. Of course, plenty of great Americans would not make the best Sunday school teachers, hmm?

To see a list of the 102 inductees, go here. How many names do you recognize? (I knew 85, though I might not have been able to tell you why all of them were famous). You’ll also notice a contemporary complaint about the hall: few women and minorities. People calling to revitalize the hall hope to make new inductees more reflective of a diverse United States.

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