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Delta Omega


By Gerard J. Shorb, Johns Hopkins University

Part 2: The Founding of Delta Omega

Delta Omega was founded at The Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health in May 1924 by two graduate students, Edgar Erskine Hume and Claude W. Mitchell. At the time, public health as a profession was still in its infancy and the graduate schools of public health had only recently come into being.6 In the years before the establishment of university-based education in public health, entrance into the field had been largely through the gate of practical experience and political favor. To promote graduate study in public health, it seemed appropriate to Hume and Mitchell to organize an honorary society to recognize outstanding achievement in the new field.7

Edgar Erskine Hume was born in Frankfort, Kentucky on December 26, 1889. He received a BA from Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, in 1908 and an master's degree in 1909. He attended the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, earning his medical degree in 1913. He later completed his Public Health doctorate at The Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health in 1924.

Hume served for most of his life in public health efforts in the military. He was in the Army Medical Corps from 1916 to 1951 where he became a leading medical authority involved in combating disease all over the world. He fought typhus epidemics in Siberia, Russia and in Naples, Italy. During World War II, he headed military governments for the American troops occupying Naples, Milan, Rome and Florence. One of the most decorated soldiers in American history, Hume was also a librarian at the Army Medical Library for part of his career (1922-26, 1932-36 and 1936-1943). The author of more than 400 books and articles on scientific and historical topics, Hume died in 1952.8

Claude William Mitchell was born in Kansas on May 27, 1889. He received his BA in 1910, his MA in 1911 and his PhD in 1913, all from the University of Nebraska. He earned his medical degree from Rush Medical College in 1916 and his doctorate in Public Health from The Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health in 1925. An assistant surgeon in the United States Public Health Service from 1917 to 1925, he later went into private practice in Silver Spring, Maryland. Mitchell died in 1976.9

The School of Hygiene and Public Health at Johns Hopkins was established in 1916. The University, however, did not finish construction of the new public health building on Wolfe Street until 1925. The School, meanwhile, operated out of temporary quarters in downtown Baltimore in buildings formerly used by the University's Arts and Sciences division. Most of the school's activities took place in the old physics building.10

A number of students attending the new Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health worked, or were on military duty, in nearby Washington D.C. They commuted to school and work via the one-hour train ride between Washington and Baltimore.11

The idea for Delta Omega arose during the train rides that Hume and Mitchell shared as they commuted. They both felt that if public health was to occupy a position comparable to that of the other professions, it should have an honorary fraternity.12 One of the primary objects of such a society, as they saw it, would be to link those institutions engaged in giving graduate instruction in public health in this country.13

Their goal was to strengthen the fledgling profession and put it on a more equal footing with the already established specialties.

Mitchell was originally in favor of a social fraternity. Hume, however, felt that there was no need for such an organization at Hopkins. What the profession needed was an honor society comparable to those in medicine, law, theology and other professions.14 Mitchell eventually agreed. The pair then consulted William Henry Welch, the director of the School and probably the most influential person in the field of medicine and public health at the time. They also consulted William Henry Howell, the great Hopkins physiologist, and Wade Hampton Frost, professor of epidemiology. Welch and Howell were enthusiastic and offered support. Mitchell and Hume, therefore, proceeded to organize the new society.

Early in 1924, Mitchell and Hume organized two preliminary meetings to discuss the Society. Nine students attended the first meeting; thirteen attended the second. The group agreed to proceed with the organization. They then appointed temporary officers to govern until they could decide on the full membership. They elected Mitchell temporary chairman, who, in turn, appointed Milford E. Barnes as temporary secretary-treasurer.

The group then appointed a committee to choose the charter members. They decided on seventeen regular members, one faculty member and one alumnus. Beside the founders, Doctors Mitchell and Hume, the other charter members included Charles A. Bailey, Milford E. Barnes, Yves M. Biraud, James B. Black, John W. Brown, W. Thurber Fales, Martin Frobisher Jr., Raymond D. Fear, John F. Kendrick, Shelton S. King, Edward A. Lane, Hilario Lara, Hynek J. Pelc, Persis Putnam and George H. Ramsey. The group chose William Henry Welch as the first faculty member. They then picked James Angus Doull as the first alumnus member. Many in this group eventually became leaders in the field of public health. (For brief biographical sketches of these individuals, see Appendix A at the close of this history).

After the group chose the charter members, they then proceeded to appoint committees. They established committees for membership and insignia design, a committee on certificates and one to draft a constitution. Finally, they appointed a committee to arrange the annual dinner.

After having consulted with Doctor Welch, the membership committee reported its findings. The committee felt that the only real justification for Delta Omega at Johns Hopkins should be to recognize and stimulate scholarship in the School or to recognize some other clearly stated achievement in the field of public health. If Delta Omega limited itself to these goals, the Society would then stand for something definite and worthwhile. The group suggested that the faculty select a certain number of outstanding students each year, these students to automatically become members of the Society. Candidates who were not students could be elected based upon past degrees taken, past positions held or other public health accomplishments. Doctor Welch suggested certain modifications in student selection. He agreed that the faculty would furnish recommendations but was adamant that the regular membership vote on all the new members. The issue of membership criteria never did quite meet everyone's expectations and caused problems for Delta Omega throughout its early history.15

The Society next proceeded to adopt a tentative constitution and to elect permanent officers. The first set of elected officers were Claude Mitchell as President, Charles Bailey as Vice President, Persis Putnam as Treasurer and Milford Barnes as Secretary.

On May 6, 1924, the insignia committee reported on their deliberations. The insignia of the Society would be a golden key with a circular center approximately the size of a dime. It would have the Greek letter Delta Omega on its face. On the back would be the initials of the University, the member's name, year of election and the Greek letter for the local chapter. The local chapter at The Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health chose the name Alpha because it was the first chapter. The keys would cost nine dollars for the first group of members and six dollars thereafter.

There is some dispute regarding the origin of the name Delta Omega. Justin Andrews, an early president of the Society, and a faculty member in Medical Zoology, recalled that the name Delta Omega was chosen by the charter members because the word Delta (a Greek triangle) "represented physicians, sanitarians & research workers, the three classes of students interested in public health." He also recalled that the word Omega was chosen because the Society "was from an honorary standpoint the last and final one which a public health worker in the field or laboratory might be elected."16

In later years (1942), however, Edgar Hume the co-founder stated that he coined the name arbitrarily and that the letters had no special significance.17 In any event, after the insignia committee reported, the group spent the next few meetings drawing up the Society's constitution. They approved it on May 14, 1924 after review by Doctor Welch. The constitution outlined the mission of the Society and the requirements for group and individual eligibility. It also outlined governance on the national and local levels. Finally, it called for an annual convention.

After approving the constitution, the Society proceeded to elect the first group of members under the terms outlined. The faculty suggested a list of the eligible candidates consisting of sixty-one names. The group chose eleven new members from this pool. They were Richard A. Bolt, William A. McIntosh, Doris A. Murray and George H. Boyd, Mary J. Chapman, Anna Baetjer, Martha Eckford, Harry Kruse, Francis A. Coventry, Elizabeth I. Parsons and Thomas F. Sellers. The chapter also chose Huo-Ki Hu, Carl R. Doering, Thomas J. LeBlanc, Thomas S. Sweeney, Lemuel R. Cleveland, Joseph M. Scott, John A. Ferrell and Raymond C. Salter as alumni members.

Delta Omega also elected three honorary members in 1924. These were Sir Arthur Newsholme, Watson S. Rankin and Sara Josephine Baker. The criterion for electing honorary members was such that any chapter could nominate someone. Eighty percent of the parent chapter, however, had to approve them. Nominees were to have exceptional credentials in the field of public health. The first three chosen certainly met this qualification.

Sir Arthur Newsholme was one of the leading British public health experts of his day. He was the Principal Medical Officer of the Local Government Board of England. He was a noted lecturer, sanitary investigator and researcher. Newsholme was the first professor of public health administration at The Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health (1919-1921). He "stimulated the growth of knowledge and the application of public health principles and aided in the formulation of fundamental principles in preventive medicine."18

Watson S. Rankin was the former Director of the Duke Hospital and Director of the Duke Endowment. He was a state health officer who later (1920) became President of the American Public Health Association. Rankin was noted for raising public health administration standards and contributing "to the solution of the problems of rural health and hospitalization."19

Sara Josephine Baker was a pioneer in child health issues. She was a writer, educator and pioneer on the subject of child care and made an enormous contribution to the reduction of infant and maternal mortality. Her accomplishments conferred the benefits of good health on thousands of mothers and children.20

After the elections, the group recessed for the summer. Edward Hume used the break to promote new Delta Omega chapters in other East coast schools while Richard Bolt similarly worked in the West.21

By the next meeting, held on October 15, 1924, Hume reported that the organization of chapters at Harvard (Beta) and M.I.T. (Gamma) had begun. These new chapters were immediately approved. Later that year, chapters at the University of Michigan (Delta) and at Yale (Epsilon) were also approved.22

By the end of the year the Society was already making plans for a national convention. Alpha Chapter elected Edgar Hume and Richard Bolt to be their representatives on the new National Council which was to form. The members of this council, once assembled, would eventually administer the governance of Delta Omega on a national basis.

In February of 1925, Alpha Chapter elected more faculty members. After this election, a sizable portion of the faculty of the School became members of Delta Omega. These included William H. Howell, Janet Clark, Allen Freeman, E.V. McCollum, Raymond Pearl, Roscoe Hyde, Lowell Reed, Charles Simon and Nina Simmonds. Alpha Chapter held two more meetings in 1925 and elected new students to membership.

The first national organization meeting was scheduled to be held May 31, 1925. It was to take place during the meeting of the American Medical Association.23

Unfortunately, no minutes for this meeting are in the Society's archive. It is curious to note that at the next meeting of Alpha Chapter, held in December of 1925, the group made no mention of the first national meeting. Perhaps the meeting was canceled or perhaps it was too uneventful to report upon. The minutes of the December 1925 meeting of Alpha Chapter do, however, indicate that a problem had arisen. This problem may have been related to the delay in organizing the National Council. The minutes show that at some point in 1925, Claude Mitchell, the Alpha Chapter President and co-founder, left the United States Public Health Service to enter the private practice of medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland. Mitchell then relinquished his position in Alpha Chapter. After this, Alpha Chapter went without meeting for several months in 1925. When they did meet, they almost decided to disband. The membership agreed to continue, however, by a margin of one vote, four to three with three abstentions.

With their first crisis averted, the members infused new life into Alpha Chapter. They appointed Persis Putnam as the President, replacing Mitchell. The group committed themselves to more and better meetings and they voted to hold the annual dinner. In March of 1926 the University of California applied for a chapter and Alpha Chapter approved the application. In May of the following year (1927), a national meeting was scheduled for the fall in Cincinnati. Alpha Chapter agreed to turn over its supervisory function to the National Council at this meeting as part of the process of making Delta Omega into a national organization.

On October 19, 1927 the chapters of Delta Omega assembled at the Gibson Hotel in Cincinnati. Delegate John A. Ferrell represented Alpha Chapter with Milford E. Barnes as Alternate. Beta Chapter (Harvard) sent Edward G. Huber with Walter J. Connell as Alternate. The Gamma Chapter (M.I.T.) chose James A. Tobey and Alternate Clair E. Turner to represent their membership. The Delta Chapter (Michigan) sent Nathan Sinai with George T. Palmer as Alternate. The Epsilon Chapter (Yale) sent C-E.A. Winslow and Alternate Leonard Greenburg. Richard A. Bolt, a transfer from the Alpha Chapter, represented the University of California (Zeta).

The new parent group immediately went into action. They adopted a new constitution and formulated by-laws. They elected national officers for the ensuing year (1927-28). C-E.A. Winslow was elected President with Edgar Hume as Vice President and James A. Tobey as Secretary-Treasurer.24 The group then prepared forms for issuing chapter charters and certificates and they assembled membership lists. They voted to call on Alpha Chapter for the funds now under their jurisdiction. They also voted that the President appoint a committee to investigate reprinting certain classic publications in public health under Delta Omega's name. They recommended that all the local chapters hold public health lectures. Finally, the group urged all chapters to present annual reports at each national meeting.

The new officers were well known figures in the field of public health. The president, Charles-Edward Amory Winslow, was the Anna M. R. Lauder Professor of Public Health at the Yale University School of Medicine from 1915 to 1945. Born in Boston in 1877, Winslow received his B.S. and M.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For eight years he was at M.I.T. on the faculty in sanitary bacteriology. From 1910 to 1914 he was Associate Professor of Biology at New York City University and from 1910 to 1922 he was the Curator of Public Health at the American Museum of Natural History. From 1932 to 1957 he was Director of the John B. Pierce Laboratory of Hygiene. He died in 1957.25

The Secretary-Treasurer, James A. Tobey, was born in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1894. He received his B.S. in 1916 and his Doctorate in Public Health in 1927, both from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He received his M.A. from American University in 1923. Tobey held a variety of public health positions early in his career. He was a health officer in New Jersey from 1916 to 1919. He also worked with the American Red Cross, the National Health Council and the Institute for Government Research. He spent the bulk of his career (1926 to 1937) as the Director of Health Services for the Borden Company. In 1937 he took a position with the American Institute of Baking. Tobey was also Associate Editor of The American Journal of Public Health from 1918 to 1929. He was an expert in the legal aspects of public health.26

The constitution and by-laws of the new National Council required a two thirds vote in order to admit new chapters into the Society. It recommended that all chapter members be chosen with "due regard to their scholarly attainments and with the object of maintaining the honorary character of the Society."27

It limited active membership to public health faculty or to students who were degree candidates in public health. These students must also have finished at least three fourths of a full year working toward an advanced degree and they must have been intent upon a career in public health after graduation.28 The Society asked an initiation fee of $9.00 from each new member. This was later reduced to $7.00. The money was used to pay for the insignia key and certificates, with the rest to go to the national chapter. Delta Omega would pay other expenses by special assessment.

By the end of the first national Delta Omega conference, the new council, equipped with a constitution and by-laws, had taken over the governance from Alpha chapter. This is exactly what the co-founders had planned at the Society's inception.