Maynard ShipleyBy Mirian Allen deFord - The Humanist 15, 25 (1955)Recently I talked to the Fellowship of Humanity, in Oakland, California, on the war against the teaching of evolution in the 1920's, and the work of the Science League of America, which my husband, Maynard Shipley founded in 1924, and of which he was president.
Afterwards a number of people came up to tell me that they remembered him, that they had heard him lecture or read some of his writings. They were all middle-aged at least, most of them were old. The period in which he lived, which to them and to me is scarcely yesterday, is to the younger people who are growing up today a dead era of the past. So before all of us who remember have died, perhaps it would be worth while to give what must be a brief and incomplete sketch of the life and personality of a man who could have been and done what he was and did only in the United States of America, and only in the time, so different from our chaotic world now, which was his moment of history.
Maynard Shipley was born in Baltimore on December 1, 1872 - a birthday which made him constantly in print a year older than he actually was. On his father's side of the family had been in Maryland since 1633, when Lord Calvert, Lord Baltimore's brother, brought a shipload of settlers from England; they settled in Howard County, and Maynard's first name (which was never used) was Howard for that reason. His father was a Confederate veteran. His mother's father, John H.T. Jerome had been mayor of Baltimore in the 1850's. Through the Jeromes he was a distant cousin of Winston Churchill.
Except for a year in boarding school in Virginia, run by the son-in-law of the great geographer, Matthew Fontaine Maury, Maynard Shipley received what little formal education he had in the public schools of Baltimore. Because of family and personal events which I have to space to explain here, he never finished grammar school - and the first time he entered high school it was to give a lecture on astronomy! In later years, he was briefly a special student at the University of California and struggled through one year, ten years after the normal age, at Stanford; but in actuality he was almost entirely self-educated. He spent a good deal of time disclaiming the title of "doctor" consistently bestowed on him by people who could not believe that he never had any degree at all.
His enormous amount of learning in every branch of science, and in some fields of economics as well, came from reading and study - he was a born student - in the few leisure hours left after hard and grueling work. From the age of fifteen he was self-supporting. He had in his youth some varied and unusual experiences - including on the stage - but for most of that time he was a retail shoe clerk. Besides his general self-conducted studies, he taught himself music, and trom 1900 on he was for many years a teacher of the piano.
He went to Seattle in 1889, and for most of the remainder of his life lived either there, in Everett, Washington, or in and around San Francisco. I met him in Baltimore in 1917, his first visit East in more than 25 years, but he returned West in 1918 and never left the West Coast again until his death in Sausalito, a suburb of San Francisco, on June 18, 1934.
Maynard's primary interest in science was first evidenced in 1898, in Seattle, when he organized a lecture and discussion group called the Seattle Academy of Sciences, which flourished for several years. he was its second president, and he gave his first lectures under its auspices. But an interest rivaling that in science, and for a number of years superseding it, was criminology, and specifically the history of the death penalty. By the time he had reached Stanford, he had already done a great deal of research in this hitherto-neglected field, and some of his articles had been published in legal and other technical journals. In fact, he was officially a freshman at Stanford when he was asked by the head of the Department of Sociology to lecture to seniors on the subject.
When he found it impossible to continue as a student, he kept on with his researches under the aegis of the university; he became internationally known as an authority, and was offered a chair at Northwestern University - an opportunity which for reasons not possible to go into here he was obliged to decline. He continued research and writing in this field for many years, and his published and unpublished material is now in the library of the Univeristy of California.
In 1904 Maynard and his then wife, an Alsatian by birth and a teacher of languages, established a boarding school for boys, the Palo Alto Academy, which flourished for two years. The building which housed it was destroyed in the great earthquake of 1906, but fortunately the school had been closed only a few weeks earlier, when Maynard and his wife moved to Reno, Nevada.
It was in Reno that he joined the Socialist party, in which he was active until he resigned from it in 1922. During this period he edited state papers of the party in Oakland, Everett, and Baltimore, and was a representative of the national office for five months in 1916 when Eugene V. Debs ran for Congress in Indiana. He lived with Debs in Terre Haute during this time, and they became close personal friends. In 1920 Maynard hismself was the Socialist candidate for Congress in Alameda County, California and received a surprisingly large vote (he had the endorsement of a member of the large AF of L unions), though of course he did not win. It was about 1909 that he began giving lectures illustrated by stereopticon, first on astronomy, then on other branches of science; gradually these developed into a series presenting the entire evolution of earth and man.
From about 1922 on all of Maynard's time was given to lecturing and writing. For the Haldeman-Julius Little Blue Books he wrote 33 titles, mostly on astronomy, physics, and chemistry, and a giant 240,000 word four-volume Key to Evolution. Besides innumerable magazine articles, chapters in anthologies, and book reviews (for the New York Times, the Survey Graphic, the Nation, the New Republic, Current History and many similar periodials), his major publication was The War on Modern Science, a complete history of the antievolution movement, published by Knopf in 1927. Articles by him appeared often in the magazines just mentioned as well as in others ranging from the Scientific American to American Mercury when it was edited by Mencken and Nathan. Besides his regular lectures, he also had two long-standing radio programs, one of them (over the Mutual Broadcasting System) called "This Amazing Universe."
It was natural that when the attacks on the teaching of evolution began, Maynard Shipley should be much concerned. After vain appeals to existing scientific and educational organizations, he determined to do what he could on his own to fight this recrudescence of obscurantisim. The Science League of America was started in San Francisco in 1924, and at once secured the support of teachers of science in colleges and high schools all over the country. It is impossible to give its history here, but it was credited with helping to kill most of 37 antievolution measures in 13 states - only three of which were successful. The War on Modern Science was a direct outgrowth of this work, and an essential part of it . There were also a series of debates with such leaders of fundamentalism as Dr. John Roach Straton and Dr. William Bell Riley, and the League served as a clearinghouse and information bureau for teachers and students, and performed many other services to freedom of teaching before the depression and Maynard's increasing ill health brought it to an end in 1932.
When Maynard Shipley became one of the signers of the Humanist Manifesto, it was after long years as a freethinker. He was reared in the Baptist church and his first Sunday-school teacher was the wife of the Reverend Thomas Dixon, notorious both for his anti-Negro novels and his Fundamentalist activities; but it may be added that Maynard and his two younger brothers (there were six Shipley boys in all) so plagued poor Mrs. Dixon with their critical questions and arguments that she called on their mother and asked that they be kept away from the Sunday school! From that time on, Maynard and orthodox religion of any kind - let alone Christianity - were permanently parted. He was a long-time member of the Rationalist Press Association in England, and a frequent contributor to the Truth Seeker, then the leading free-thought publication in America. He died as he lived, without the slightest belief in either a god or personal survival - indeed without belief in the existence of a separate "spirit" to survive; he was a complete monist.
This is necessarily a brief, dry, and impersonal account, omitting all the things which made Maynard Shipley what he was as a human being; omitting also the experiences, vicissitudes, and accidents which made his personal history read like a melodrama. All that I have written in a full-length biography, for which I still hope some day to find a publisher.
The story of his life is a unique human document, and a valuable piece of Americana - and Maynard Shipley himself was both typical of his time and place, and yet unique. He had not only the finest and profoundest mind I have ever known, but the sweetest, kindest, and most generous nature. All his life, people loved him; he collected devoted friends wherever he went, and to this day people who knew him speak of him with the special warmth of real affection. He had absolute integrity, and he was a man markedly ethical in nature. He was the only strikingly handsome man I ever knew who was genuinely modest and self-deprecating. He was an extreme introvert who had to force himself into an extroverted life, and he had none of the exhibitionism of most public speakers. He had the keen wit of the naturally melancholy, and even in his last long illness he retained the youthfulness of mind and personality which made most people think of him at least ten of fifteen years younger than he actually was. Justice and wisdom were the two things he worshipped; cruelty and stupidity the two he abhorred. Nature had intended him for the life of a scholar; circumstances never gave him the opportunity to fulfill all his potentialities; but neither hardship nor bitter disappointment could ever quench his courage and destroy his idealism.
We had seventeen precious years together. He died twenty years ago, and to me it still seems like yesterday. With him died the only part of my life that was worth the living. He gave far more to the world than it ever gave to him, and I wish before I too die that I could put in permanent form the full story of his remakable career and his rare character.
Miriam Allen deFord is the pen name of Mrs Maynard Shipley. She is a tireless writer, author of half a dozen full length books, both fiction and nonfiction, and of articles and stories so numerous that even she has lost count.