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Spring/Summer 2012

The Longest Dean

Date: May 14, 2012

Chesney assumed the deanship at Hopkins on Nov. 5, 1929—a week after the Stock Market crash.
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Chesney assumed the deanship at Hopkins on Nov. 5, 1929—a week after the Stock Market crash.

As Edward Miller, the School of Medicine’s 13th dean, finishes up an eventful 16-year term next month, he’ll be able to add one more milestone to his record: his was the second-longest deanship in Hopkins history. So who holds the record for the longest deanship? That distinction, it turns out, belongs to Alan Mason Chesney ’12, the sixth dean. Chesney (1888-1964) served an astonishing 24 years, from 1929 to 1953, determinedly leading his alma mater through both the Great Depression and World War II.

Despite the obstacles Chesney faced, today Johns Hopkins cognoscente credit him with a plethora of accomplishments. In carrying out one of a dean’s most hallowed tasks, for instance, choosing department directors, Chesney made several key appointments. He named Alfred Blalock, who helped pioneer the lifesaving Blue Baby Operation, to head surgery. He selected A. McGehee Harvey, recognized as the finest clinician of his day, to head medicine. And he chose Russell Morgan, who gave the world incredible improvements in imaging techniques, as Hopkins’ first radiologist-in-chief. Chesney also wrote a three-volume history of The Johns Hopkins Hospital and School of Medicine, and established the eponymous medical school archives here, now considered one of the nation’s finest such repositories.

But the greatest achievement of Chesney’s deanship may simply have been keeping the School of Medicine afloat. Why (and how) he remained dean for nearly a quarter of a century could well have to do with the perilous times in which he served. His steady, unflappable manner seemed to bring just the right touch to a medical school struggling to maintain its status in American medicine. Chesney stood as a fervent advocate of academic freedom, high educational standards, and unfettered medical research—qualities prized by the faculty.

“I once heard him say, ‘The dean is the servant of the faculty,’” recalls neuroscience pioneer Vernon Mountcastle ’42, whose early years on the faculty unfolded during Chesney’s final years as dean. “He wasn’t a leader but sort of an organizer. He was a classical, reserved Baltimorean: an extremely polite, well-mannered person who had strong opinions.”

Still, Chesney had one major fault, Mountcastle notes. “He didn’t believe in accepting federal money for medical research or education.” Once the federal spigot for research was turned on full blast after World War II, the dean spurned the government’s largesse. “That meant that for 10 years, Hopkins fell behind,” says Mountcastle. Much-needed renovations and new buildings were put on hold, and some exceptional faculty left because of the constraints on their ability to obtain federal grants to support research and supplement their meager salaries. Chesney’s refusal to accept federal funds was “a tremendous handicap to younger people trying to make their way in academic medicine,” Mountcastle says. “The Dean felt that to be a full-time physician on the faculty, you had to be independently wealthy. That was very hard for those who were not independently wealthy,” says Mountcastle, who counts himself in that group.

Ironically, so was Chesney. Although comfortably situated, he wasn’t wealthy. His annual salary in 1945 was just $9,000—$5,000 for being dean, $4,000 for his role as an associate professor of medicine who taught laboratory diagnosis. As homegrown as they come, Chesney was born on January 17, 1888, a few blocks from where Hopkins Hospital would open 16 months later. His family had deep Maryland roots. Chesney once proudly told a friend that he was a direct descendant of Mason Locke Weems, the Maryland-born parson who concocted the cherry tree fable about George Washington.

Chesney entered Hopkins as an undergraduate in 1905. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, played quarterback on the football team, and became a star for three consecutive national championship lacrosse teams. (Later he would be named to Hopkins’ All-time Lacrosse Team.) Entering the School of Medicine in 1908, Chesney graduated at the top of the Class of 1912. (A classmate, Lewis Weed, would become Chesney’s predecessor as dean, and the two now stand as the only School of Medicine graduates to go on to hold that role.)

Following a Hopkins internship and residency, Chesney spent three years at New York’s Rockefeller Institute Hospital before joining the Army Medical Corps when the country entered World War I. During overseas service in France and Germany he contracted an ear infection that would plague him the rest of his life. Leading to a progressive hearing loss that limited his ability to use a stethoscope, the handicap altered his plan to become a pneumonia specialist. Instead, he turned his attention to the treatment of syphilis and chronic infections and wrote several influential microbiological studies. He was appointed an associate professor in medicine at St. Louis’ Washington University in 1919, then returned to Hopkins in 1921. Eight years later, on Nov. 5, 1929—a week after the Stock Market crash—the 41-year-old was named dean.

It was not a propitious moment to assume leadership of the School of Medicine. The building boom of the 1920s had ended and there would be no major construction for the next two decades. “Depression psychology set in,” noted Thomas Turner in Heritage of Excellence: The Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, 1914-1947. “Notices went up to turn out unused lights, surgical dressings were used less lavishly, the annual report was reduced in size, and patients were pressed more vigorously for higher payments.” During the Depression’s depths, in fact, 66 percent of all patients in the public wards were treated for free.

Chesney managed the medical school’s finances prudently but couldn’t avoid deficits, despite budget and salary cuts. He constantly sought additional funds from the city and state to cover the costs of caring for the poor. In 1932, he even proposed “a grand sweepstakes lottery,” perhaps linked to the running of the Preakness, to raise money for indigent patient care. In 1935, he was compelled to launch a citywide fundraising drive, the first in Hopkins’ history. By 1936 the School of Medicine’s budget was in the black and would remain so for the next three years. Then, just as the School was beginning to get out of the woods, the United States entered World War II. Within six months, activation of two Hopkins military medical units removed 38 members of the faculty. By June 1942, 92 faculty physicians were in uniform; house officers went directly into the military.

With the rolls of medical school applicants also depleted, the School bent its rigid requirements and admitted some students without bachelor’s degrees and competence in German and French. From June 1942 until March 1946, Hopkins also accelerated its medical program by eliminating the summer vacation and graduating two classes each year. Still, Chesney, a staunch proponent of the highest academic standards, vigorously objected to a 1944 decision by the Army to cut its pre-med requirement from two years to 15 months. “In my opinion the Army erred in cutting down this preparatory period,” he told The Baltimore Sun. “The result will be that boys will come in for medical training when they are younger, less mature. Whether they will be able to do better work, none can say.”

The response was characteristic. Chesney never hesitated to do battle when his standards were challenged. Following the war, he became an outspoken adversary of anti-vivisectionists whose campaigns to end medical experiments on animals had been a bête noire for him since the 1930s. In 1948, during the height of a local anti-vivisection drive, he even put his Eutaw Place house up as bail for a man arrested for selling cats and dogs to Hopkins and the University of Maryland for medical experiments. In 1950, when anti-vivisectionists got a referendum on the city ballot to ban animal experimentation, Chesney became a tireless leader opposing the bill. It was defeated soundly.

To many on the faculty, Chesney appeared to be humorless. “I don’t think I ever saw him laugh at anything,” Vernon Mountcastle remembers. To close colleagues and friends, however, the dean displayed a sly wit despite his increasing deafness. On Thanksgiving Day in 1937, when his small staff sent him chrysanthemums while he was recuperating at home from a three-week illness, he wrote a whimsical thank-you note: “I suddenly realized that it was the day of Thanksgiving, when everybody is supposed … to give thanks for all their blessings. Could it be that those poor, suffering souls in the Dean’s Office were sending thanks that their companion was sick and out of their way?

The dean spent his summers on Deer Isle in Maine. For more than 30 years, he was the proud owner of a 31-foot Friendship class sloop named Dictator, built in 1904. He taught his two sons and daughter to sail on it, and he and his wife, Cora, were renowned for their hospitality aboard their boat and in their cliff-side home above Penobscot Bay.

Chesney finally relinquished the deanship in 1953. When he retired from the job he’d held for a quarter century, he wrote wryly to a friend: “Of one thing I am convinced and that is that it is far better to retire while your colleagues want you to stay, than to go to the point where they want you to go but don’t have the courage to tell you so to your face!” *