Did you know we also have a minor in Public Health?

Circa 1890: Milton J. Rosenau in uniform.
Circa 1890: Milton J. Rosenau in uniform.

You may have heard that the Southern Historical Collection (SHC) has “a couple” of collections of manuscript materials relating to the Civil War, Civil Rights, Southern politics, literature, and business (among other bread and butter subject areas). But, you may not have known that we also preserve a number of great collections in several smaller subject nodes. These minor focuses have sprouted and thrived over the years due to a variety of reasons. One such minor subject strength is public health.

Due in large part to the prestige of UNC Chapel Hill’s School of Public Health right down the road, and other strong connections, the SHC has been the beneficiary over the years of several great acquisitions of the papers of noted public health officials and organizations.  We were recently reminded of one very rich public health collection, the Milton J. Rosenau Papers. We thought we’d share a bit on Rosenau’s interesting life.

Milton J. Rosenau was commissioned as an assistant surgeon in the United States Marine Hospital Service (now the United States Public Health Service) in 1890. In 1899, he was appointed director of the Hygienic Laboratory of that service. He was instrumental in 1922 in the establishment of the Harvard University School of Public Health and, in 1940, became first dean of the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina. (In fact, the School of Public Health’s building is named for Rosenau).

Circa 1920: Milton Rosenau in laboratory.
Circa 1920: Milton Rosenau in laboratory.

The SHC’s collection of Rosenau material includes correspondence, writings, lecture notes, pictures, and other items documenting his career as a public health official, chiefly 1900-1924. His activities at the Marine Hospital Service, the Hygienic Laboratory, and Harvard University are covered, as is his work in such areas as milk hygiene, typhoid fever, other diseases, and relief to European Jews.

The one topic that comes up again and again throughout the Rosenau collection is: MILK! Rosenau was a bit of a milk connoisseur. No, that’s not quite right…he was more of a milk saint. The way we understand it, it was Rosenau that took the pioneering work of Louis Pasteur to a whole new level. It seems that the “Pasteurization” process of milk had a small flaw in that it made the end product taste like, well, cooked milk. Rosenau tweaked the process, reducing the temperature and advocating for slow-cooking.  Perhaps a little North Carolina barbeque played a role in this eureka moment? Anyway, the effect of such a change was a much more pleasing taste and, as a result, much wider adoption of consumption of pasteurized milk. We suppose “Rosenauzation” doesn’t have the same ring. Google Books has made available this copy of his landmark work on the subject, called “The Milk Question.”

So, if you feel the spirit move you today at lunch, raise a glass of milk, “To Milton Rosenau! To germ-free and tasty milk!”

Langston Hughes in Chapel Hill, December 1931

December 1931: Langston Hughes (left) and Anthony Buttitta standing on Franklin Street in downtown Chapel Hill. From Contempo Records (#4408), Southern Historical Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill.
December 1931: Langston Hughes (left) and Contempo co-publisher Anthony Buttitta standing on Franklin Street in downtown Chapel Hill. From Contempo Records (#4408), Southern Historical Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill.

Chapel Hill has seen its share of notable visitors throughout its history. Some of these notables have been welcomed to town with open arms, others…not so much. In December 1931, writer Langston Hughes received one of these colder varieties of welcomes to the Hill.

Hughes had been invited to Chapel Hill by Milton “Ab” Abernethy, one of the publishers of a short-lived journal of literary and social commentary called Contempo, based in Chapel Hill. Abernethy, an avowed communist who, before settling in Chapel Hill, had been expelled from State College (now North Carolina State University) for publishing some rabble-rousing words about the college administration, is quite an intriguing figure in his own right – perhaps we’ll add more about Abernethy in a later post.

Although only lasting from 1931-1934, Contempo was able to build a strong reputation among critics for expanding the boundaries of literary work in the 1930s and was able to attract submissions from the likes of William Faulkner, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Sherwood Anderson, Erskine Caldwell, Hilda Doolittle (H.D.), e.e. cummings, William Carlos Williams, and many other luminaries of the day.

[The Southern Historical Collection is proud to be the home of a 720 item collection of Contempo Records (#4408) which includes letters to and from authors, typescripts of literary works, photographs, clippings and other items. The photograph above-left comes from this SHC collection.]

Throughout October and November 1931, Abernethy and Hughes corresponded to discuss including some of Hughes’ work in the December 1 issue of Contempo. The publishers had decided that this December issue would be a special issue on the events surrounding the case of the Scottsboro Boys – a special issue that would include opinion pieces on the case from those in the literary community, as well as poems and other works in response to the Scottsboro case. Hughes submitted several items to Abernethy for publication, including: a poem called “Christ in Alabama,” an accompanying drawing called “Black Christ” by artist Zell Ingram of Cleveland, Ohio, as well as an essay he called, “Southern Gentlemen, White Prostitutes, Mill-Owners, and Negroes.”

These titles alone would have caused a stir in the American South of the 1930s, but the content was also quite daring. The essay began with the sentence, “If the 9 Scottsboro boys die, the South ought to be ashamed of itself — but the 12 million Negroes in America ought to be more ashamed than the South.” The poem, “Christ in Alabama,” was even more pointed. Click here to view an image of the front page of the December 1931 issue of Contempo.

The publication of the Scottsboro issue of Contempo was timed to appear several days before Hughes was to visit Chapel Hill for a public reading. Citizens of the town of Chapel Hill were incensed. UNC President Frank Porter Graham and Chapel Hill town officials received a flood of letters denouncing Hughes as “sacrilegious” and calling for his engagement to be canceled (to put it softly). Graham did not interfere and the reading went on as planned.

Later, during Graham’s hard-fought 1950 Democratic primary in the campaign for U.S. Senate, the Hughes case was used quite effectively by Graham’s opponent, Willis Smith, as an example of Graham’s longstanding left-leaning (read: Communist) tendencies.

There is more of this story to discover in several of the SHC’s collections, as well as in various resources in the North Carolina Collection. There are letters and clippings relating to Hughes’ visit in the Guy Benton Johnson Papers, the aforementioned angry letters written to Frank Porter Graham in the Frank Porter Graham Papers, and other items. This is definitely an episode in Chapel Hill’s past that deserves further scholarly treatment – and it just so happens that we’ve got the raw material for said treatment right here in the SHC stacks!