“Dear Mr President…” Robert Wallace’s letters to Woodrow Wilson, 1914-1917

Professor Robert Wallace, from the glass slide collection partially amassed by him (Coll-1434/3200)

Professor Robert Wallace, from the glass slide collection partially amassed by him (Coll-1434/3200)

Robert Wallace (1853-1939) is not a widely-known name today, although in his time he was an important agriculturalist who travelled the world. He was Professor of Agriculture and Rural Economy at the University of Edinburgh between 1885 and 1922, and established the Edinburgh Incorporated School of Agriculture. Edinburgh University Library Special Collections holds some material relating to Wallace, namely, a collection of glass slides partly amassed by him and some written material. Among these papers is a collection of Wallace’s copies of a number of letters sent to President Woodrow Wilson during the First World War.

'Letters to President Woodrow Wilson...' (Gen.867F)

‘Letters to President Woodrow Wilson…’ (Gen.867F)

Over the course of 27 letters dating between 30 August 1914 and 3 April 1917, Wallace addresses the President on the perceived dangers to allied prisoners of war under the system of “frightfulness” (a term which was used to describe an assumed military policy of the German Army towards civilians in World War I, particularly during their invasion of Belgium in 1914). Wallace also expresses concern about the dangers of starvation to the Belgian people, and about what course of action America, who was then neutral, ought to take. In his first letter, Wallace sets out his aims:

My object is to inform you of the root-causes of the present war and of the nature of the German autocracy with which the civilised world is confronted, for it is to my mind certain that America is destined to play an important part in that compact among the leading nations which must make a gigantic war in the future an impossibility.

Wallace enclosed a number of press cuttings and pamplets, such as Morals and German Policy by Arthur Conan Doyle and an article on the Neutrality of the United States in relation to the British and German Empires by Joseph Shield Nicolson, then Professor of Political Economy at the University of Edinburgh.

These letters were by no means Wallace’s first brush with American political figures. He had visited the United States on a number of occasions as part of his work, and on a visit in 1898 he met James Wilson, Minister of Agriculture at Washington (who had emigrated from Scotland aged 18 and, it was discovered,  happened to be related to Wallace). Wilson introduced him to President McKinley, the 25th President of the United States, who spoke warmly to Wallace of Britain’s support of America during the Cuban War. Wallace clearly hoped that his letters to the 28th President would encourage a return of this favour.

However, although the White House confirmed that his letters had been received, it appears that Wallace was never granted a response from the President himself. Undeterred, he continued to collect and send press cuttings and articles, and as the war progressed his tone became more urgent. In a letter dated 5 February 1917, Wallace expressed his “profound disappointment and my public, as well as private, regret” at the President’s address to Congress on 3 February that his country was “sincere friends of the German people and earnestly desire to remain at peace with the Government which speaks for them.” This statement was made following Germany’s proposal to form a military alliance with Mexico in the event of the US entering the war (the ‘Zimmerman telegram’), and many were critical of Wilson’s minimal reaction. After the sinking of several American ships, however, Wilson called a cabinet meeting on 20 March, in which America’s entry into the war received a unanimous vote.

Wallace himself did not necessarily believe that entering the war was the desired solution. In his final letter to the President (which he titled his “final supreme effort”) dated 3 April 1917, Wallace urged Wilson to commission all German and Austrian ships in USA harbours to carry food to Belgium, and suggested that America should unite with the Chinese Republic as a deterrent to Germany.

'President Wilson Leads Parade' - a glass slide from the collection partially amassed by Wallace (Coll-1434/3261)

‘President Wilson Leads Parade’ – a glass slide from the collection partially amassed by Wallace (Coll-1434/3261)

Yet on the following day, a declaration of war by the United States against Germany passed Congress by strong bipartisan majorities.

In 1919, Woodrow Wilson spent six months in Paris at the Peace Conference, where he was a staunch advocate of the creation of a League of Nations. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in the same year. Wallace published his letters to Woodrow Wilson in book form in 1931.



Although Woodrow Wilson’s reaction to Wallace’s letters remain unknown, they provide a fascinating insight into the subject of America’s entry in the First World War, as well as an unusual insight into Wallace’s personality against a backdrop of international conflict.

Clare Button
Project Archivist



From Devon to Bombay: F.A.E. Crew’s war

F.A.E. Crew, 1918

F.A.E. Crew, 1918

Francis Albert Eley Crew (1886-1973) had a distinguished career at the University of Edinburgh as director of the Institute of Animal Genetics and Buchanan Professor of Animal Genetics, and later as Professor of Public Health and Social Medicine. But at the time of the First World War he was a newly qualified medic with a small rural practice in Devon and a young family. His war experience profoundly affected his future career, spurring him to leave medicine behind to follow his real passion: genetics. Crew provided a vivid account of his war years both in oral history form and in a written memoir, both of which are held here in EUL Special Collections.

When war broke out in August 1914, Crew was at summer camp in East Devon with the Devonshire Regiment 6th Battalion of the Territorial Army, with whom he had been enthusiastically involved in his local village. What began as a summer holiday ended in a flurry of intense activity as men rushed forward to be recruited into the army. Crew and thirteen of his fellow men from his village, became the 2nd 6th Devons, bound for India. Although Crew was medically qualified, and therefore eligible to join the Royal Army Medical Corps, he wanted to see ‘active service’ and so kept his qualifications a secret.

Crew quickly formed the opinion that the organisation and training were a ‘ragbag of inefficiency’ and ‘complete chaos’. Many of his senior officers were ‘of the Boer War vintage’ with outmoded ideas; at the age of 28, Crew found himself rapidly promoted to the rank of Major and in command of a company. His battalion sailed for Bombay on 12 December 1914, leaving his wife Helen heavily pregnant with their second child. Conditions on board were somewhat chaotic: ‘The overcrowding was such that no kind of training could be undertaken and the voyage was so long that by the time we reached the Ballard Pier, Bombay, the troops were in a sorry state and found the march to the barracks at Colaba far beyond their powers.’

Once in India, the batallion came under the orders of the 6th (Poona) Divisional Area at Bombay, and Crew was sent to Deolali, where he was made responsible for field training and for the maintenance of law and order in the area. After the elderly Commanding Officer was sent home on medical grounds, Crew duly became second-in-command of a wing of the battalion, ‘with somewhat vague duties.’ Crew had enough on his hands playing ‘mother’ and ‘father’ to the young men who had come along with him, and all of whom (except one ) had never left Devon before and were totally lost in this foreign land. He spoke of his feelings of loneliness and isolation which came with promotion: ‘if you’re in command of a couple of companies of troops or a battalion or of a field ambulance, then you are isolated from all your colleagues, I mean you’re responsible for them and they can share very little with you.’

Crew in India, 1915

Crew in India, 1915

Crew was then sent to Muttra, south of Delhi, with two companies, and then up the Khyber Pass, where they commanded a fort. By this time, Crew was growing frustrated that his duties were confined to training men to fight while not seeing active service himself. But change was on the horizon. Crew developed amoebic dystentry – ‘quite deliberately’ he later wryly remarked – and became seriously ill. He was sent to Bombay to the embarkation authorities, for return to the UK. At this point, his medically qualified status was discovered, and, after a short period of rest and recuperation, Crew was posted to France, where he took over control of the stretcher-bearers in the No. 3 Field Ambulance at Arras. It was intensely dangerous work, Crew received his first wound on his second day, at Bern-Villiers, south-east of Arras:

I was sent up into the line to take over from a Major Anderson, who was running the forward work of the ambulance doing all the clearing, and he took me round all the eight-posts in front and we came back and I was marking them on my map in a small Armstrong hut, I think they called them – little cardboard thing, struck up against the face of a hill. And he was sitting down on a table and I was bending toward him as we made the marks on the map, and all of a sudden there was a terrific flare, glare, crash, noise and everything disappeared in smoke and fume and I found myself – when I came to – jammed under the seat. I’d been blown under the seat for some reason or another. I got out with great difficulty – I was wounded rather badly – and there was poor Anderson sitting on the seat…and he’d got a sliver of shell casing that long and that wide sticking out of his chest. I got that out and tried to do something for him but it was hopeless, hopeless, hopeless. So he died there promptly in my arms, and that’s not a good introduction to a war by any means.

Crew was to receive two more wounds during his time in France. These harrowing experiences naturally affected him profoundly, and he became convinced that he would not survive: ‘I didn’t bother about tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, I didn’t think there was going to be one.’ It was not until the war was reaching its end and victory seemed likely that Crew was suddenly assailed by the realisation that he might indeed have a life to return to – what was he going to do when he returned to normality?

There was no doubt at all that we were winning, and winning fast, and consequently I began to think that possibly there was a future. And so, when once that question asked itself, the second question followed: what do I do? You see, I’d been five years away from anything. Complete waste, complete waste – from my point of view. There was hardly a book, there was hardly a thing you could get hold of. And I was sitting, I was living in a hole in the ground, hanging my accoutrements upon the skeleton hand of somebody who’d been buried there years before, and under those completely gruesome conditions, one began to wonder what one was, what one wanted, what one wanted to be and so on and so forth. And it was very interesting, the speed and the clarity with which I reached my decision. I was going to be a geneticist.

Crew, Frank (1919(B)
Crew received his demobilisation in early 1919, after a demoralising experience overseeing anti-venereal work in Cologne. The war had filled him with a sense of urgency: an awareness of wasted years, a lack of intellectual stimulation and the constant threat of annihilation. Now it was all over, he was filled with a new sense of purpose:

I had discovered much about myself under the stresses of great fear, of intense boredom, of much disillusionment. I came to know that I could find satisfaction only in the academic world and in activities connected with the genetics and reproductive physiology of animals.

Crew returned eagerly to Edinburgh with the intention of studying genetics at the University under Arthur Darbishire. Unexpectedly however, Crew discovered that Darbishire had died during the war. Even more unexpectedly, Crew was suddenly offered the post intended for Darbishire: that of director of a new Animal Breeding Research Station in Edinburgh. Despite his own concerns that he was scarcely qualified in genetics, Crew went on to develop the Station into the internationally renowned Institute of Animal Genetics.

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Edinburgh’s first geneticist: Arthur Darbishire (1879-1915)

darbishire_portrait oxfordshire historyIn 1911, the University of Edinburgh appointed its first Lecturer in Genetics. The Lectureship was the first academic genetics post in Britain – the Balfour Chair in Genetics at the University of Cambridge did not come into existence until a year later. The incumbent of the Lectureship was a man called Arthur Dukinfield Darbishire, a scientist who had already caused a stir in the so-called ‘Mendel Wars’.

Darbishire was educated at Balliol College, Oxford, where he studied zoology. But in 1899, a discovery (or, rather, rediscovery) was made which changed the face of science forever. Three scientists independently stumbled across the findings of an Augustinian monk, Gregor Mendel, who had conducted a perfectly-designed study of inheritance and transmission of characteristics by cross-breeding peas growing in his monastery garden. Mendel’s ideas – his discovery of the 3:1 ratio of dominant to recessive types (terminology which he coined) and his hypothesis of invisible ‘factors’ – which we now call ‘genes’ – causing certain traits in predictable ways, were published in 1866, but remained virtually unknown for over three decades. When they were finally rediscovered, the science of ‘genetics’ was born.

Page from Notebook of Arthur Darbishire (c.1902), Edinburgh University Library Special Collections, EUA 1N1/ACU/A1/3/6

Page from Notebook of Arthur Darbishire (c.1902), Edinburgh University Library Special Collections, EUA 1N1/ACU/A1/3/6

Excitedly, Darbishire soon deviated from pure zoological studies to pursue problems of heredity. In the first few years of the twentieth century he began a series of breeding experiments, crossing Japanese waltzing mice with albinos to demonstrate the variability in the distribution of inherited coat colour. One of his research notebooks (pictured) from around this time, which exists in Edinburgh University Library Special Collections, reveal his neatly outlined hybridisations and notes from research and reading. At this point, Darbishire’s interests lay in the biometric rather than a Mendelian approach to heredity (the premise that heredity relies on continuous rather than discontinuous variation), but when he became Demonstrator in Zoology at the University of Manchester in 1902, he began to reassess the Mendelian approach. He continued his experiments with mice in the light of his earlier biometric position, and concluded that the supposed contradiction between the two theories was due more to differences of opinion rather than inherent theoretical incompatibilities, despite the heated and bitter debates between various scientists from both theoretical camps. Caught in the crossfire, Darbishire cut himself adrift from both schools of thought, maintaining an independent and critical distance.

Darbishire in uniform (1915), Edinburgh University Library Zoology collection

Darbishire in uniform (1915), Edinburgh University Library Zoology collection

Darbishire left Manchester for a spell as Senior Demonstrator and Lecturer in Zoology at the Royal College of Science before his appointment to the University of Edinburgh. Once he took up his position as Lecturer in Genetics, Darbishire had the run of the University’s Experimental Farm for his breeding experiments. By 1914, Darbishire was delivering lectures at the University of Missouri, Columbia, and was so successful that he was offered professorships from two American universities. However, Darbishire felt he could not leave England after the outbreak of war. Upon returning, he was pronounced unfit for the Army (due to ‘physical delicacy’) but in July 1915 he tried a second time at a recruiting office, where he was accepted and enrolled as a private in the 14th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. His sister Helen wrote that ‘[h]e devoted himself to his duties as a soldier with the same zest and the same meticulous attention to detail that marked his work in other spheres, and he won the love and admiration of his comrades.’ However, within less than six months, Darbishire contracted cerebral meningitis whilst in military camp at Gailes. He died on Christmas Day 1915. Three days after his death, he was gazetted Second Lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery.

Had he lived, Darbishire would doubtless have taken on the directorship of the Animal Breeding Research Station, established in 1920 to apply the new science of genetics to the practical improvement of the farming and livestock industry. The directorship of the Station (later the Institute of Animal Genetics) passed instead to one of Darbishire’s students, Francis Crew, who transformed the Institute into one of the foremost centres of genetics research in the world, and laid the foundations for Edinburgh’s continuing excellence in the biological sciences. Edinburgh University Library Special Collections holds various items relating to Arthur Darbishire, many of which have been catalogued as part of the Wellcome Trust-funded ‘Towards Dolly’ project. As well as his notebook, there are some photographic portraits and his collected offprints, many bearing his signature. These items are intimate souvenirs of the life and legacy of Edinburgh’s first geneticist.

Helen Darbishire, who was later Principal of Somerville College Oxford, wrote of her brother in 1916:

All who knew him will keep in memory a personality alive and young to a rare degree, fulfilling itself in a passion for music, much laughter, a perfectly disinterested love of truth, a delight in producing delight in others, and the keenest possible interest in life itself whichever way it led him.

Helen Darbishire, Preface to An Introduction to Biology and other papers by A.D Darbishire (Cassell and Company Ltd, 1917)

Clare Button
Project Archivist ‘Towards Dolly: Edinburgh, Roslin and the Birth of Modern Genetics’