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Delta Omega


By Gerard J. Shorb, Johns Hopkins University

Part 4: The Decline of Delta Omega

The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 took its toll on Delta Omega both on the national level and within the individual chapters. Understandably, the activities of an honorary society may have seemed inappropriate during this time. In any event, a decline in Delta Omega's activities from 1939 to 1941 can be discerned and all activities were suspended from 1942 to 1944 because of the war.

Yet the stress of the war was not the only reason for Delta Omega's decline during this period and this was particularly true at Alpha Chapter. As early as 1935, the faculty and students at The Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health were raising serious questions about Delta Omega. There was disagreement about whether or not an honorary society was an appropriate organization at the School of Hygiene and Public Health. The charge arose that Delta Omega was arbitrarily choosing a small percentage of the students for an honor, while excluding many others. This was said to be eroding student morale. Other problems arose because there were usually only a few active members in the Alpha Chapter. This was due to the fact that most of the students, particularly the C.P.H. and M.P.H. students, were only in residence for one year. The problem with this was that Delta Omega only offered membership, for all practical purposes, after a year of residence. The result was that the active control of the Society became vested in the faculty membership. Finally, Delta Omega was in direct competition with other activities on the campus of The Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health which were sponsored by the faculty. Two of these activities were the meetings of the Society of Hygiene and the DeLamar Lectures.39

The Alpha Chapter members were aware of these problems. Many of their own members had put forth the same issues before. Other members of the chapter, however, felt obligated to respond to the charge of elitism. They pointed out that only a small portion of the outstanding eligible students should be elected if the Society was to be considered, as its constitution indicated, an honorary society. As to the issue of arbitrary selection, Alpha Chapter, to its credit, put forth an enormous amount of analysis and effort throughout this period into making the election process as fair as possible. In addition to this, the National Council amended the constitution and by-laws, a number of times throughout the Society's history, in direct response to eligibility and selection issues. Despite all of this, Alpha Chapter appointed a committee in April 1941 to study the issue of becoming an inactive chapter.

Allen Freeman, a member of the committee, summarized the situation in the committee's report. The annual election process, apparently, failed to select all students likely to go on to distinguished careers in public health. The brief stay of students in the school, the limited contact between faculty and students, and the impossibility of any numerical system of grading, made it difficult to select members from the large group of students registered each year. Freeman's committee believed that an injustice had been done in the past when certain students who were equal to the group selected were not chosen. The committee felt that under these circumstances the existence of Delta Omega in the School resulted in setting up, without any good basis, a division between students elected and those not elected.40

News of Alpha Chapter's problems spread quickly and by October 1941 the issue had become national in scope. The National Council met in Atlantic City to discuss the problem. Another major issue brought up at this meeting concerned the differing methods of electing members nationwide. Although membership selection was up to the local chapters, each of them should have followed national guidelines on the matter. The differences in the make-up of the student bodies of the different schools, however, and the varying means of interpretation of eligibility resulted in dividing the schools. At the annual meetings of the Society, rather serious differences of opinion appeared and ill feeling developed. This was a direct blow to one of the primary objects of the Society as originally planned -- to form a link between institutions of public health in this country.41

The group also discussed the basic issue of continuing the Society if Alpha chapter disbanded.42 Those present at the meeting felt that Alpha Chapter, instead of disbanding, should probably become "inactive" as a temporary measure. A few months later, in March 1942, The Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health Committee on Applications and Curriculum made the same recommendation. Based on the problem of poor student morale, they suggested that Alpha Chapter not elect any new members that year. This suggestion was also approved by the School's Advisory Board. The Alpha Chapter approved the moratorium and became inactive.43

Kenneth Maxcy, former Alpha Chapter president, explained the major criticism of the method of selecting new members into the Society. "It was undesirable because of its bad effect on the un-elected persons, both as to their personal feelings, professional status and resulting attitude toward the school. It was brought out that the remarkable and very desirable spirit of unity created by the School as a whole and especially by the activities each year of the Ubiquiteers Society was seriously jeopardized by Delta Omega elections."44

With the war effort in full gear and with Alpha Chapter in an inactive status, Delta Omega essentially ceased to have any meaningful existence. Several attempts were made in 1944 to reactivate the Society with only small success reported. The Beta and Delta chapters elected members that year and a Delta Omega lecturer, Raymond Fosdick, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, was scheduled to deliver a lecture at the October 1944 meeting of the American Public Health Association. A group of Delta Omega members also met in October but they did not feel justified in attempting to formulate any policy for the future of the Society. This was due chiefly to the fact of Alpha Chapter's inactivity.45