The Forgotten Hall of Fame
December 06, 2009, 02:56 AM
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From the New York Times:
A Hall of Fame, Forgotten and Forlorn On a leafy hilltop, dozens of busts of once-famous men stare mournfully at an empty walkway, their unfamiliar names chiseled in grand letters, their feats now obscure.

Josiah W. Gibbs? Augustus Saint-Gaudens?

Saint-Gaudens was the greatest American sculptor of the late 19th Century. Gibbs was a phenomenally accomplished physicist, chemist, and mathematician.

In general, the honorees reflects the tastes of the high-brow electors. For example, the first cohort of 29 elected in 1900 includes botanist Asa Gray, to whom Darwin addressed the 1857 letter that established Darwin's precedence over Alfred Russel Wallace in developing the theory of natural selection.

Welcome to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, a lonely outpost in the University Heights section of the Bronx.

When it was founded in 1900, it was the first Hall of Fame in the nation, local historians say, and the elections to induct members were covered by the national press. ...

But when the hall’s host, New York University, sold its Bronx campus in 1973, the collection languished. The 98 busts tarnished, soot gathered, and the Hall of Fame slowly slipped into irrelevance. An election has not been held since 1976.

Today, the colonnaded hall sits high above the city as an awkward appendage to the campus of Bronx Community College. To history buffs, it is a forgotten gem; to nearly everyone else, it is just forgotten.

While the college faculty has sought to integrate the Hall of Fame into the school’s curriculum, the disconnect between the honorees and the student body has grown only wider, leaving even the hall’s few defenders to acknowledge that it is in desperate need of a face-lift. More than half of the college’s students are Hispanic; the Hall of Fame, however, honors few women and even fewer minorities.

Actually, the number of women seems about right: I come up with 11% female. If you made up a list today of the 100 most distinguished Americans who have been dead over 25 years, would it be much more than 11% female? What about among living Americans? The first name that springs to my mind among living Americans as a worthy honoree would be Edward O. Wilson for accomplishments as a scientific specialist (ants), scientific generalist (sociobiology), writer, and conservationist. James D. Watson would rank up there, too. How many living women approach the Wilson-Watson level?

In this Hall of Fame, I count two blacks (Booker T. Washington and George W. Carver), no American Indians, and no Hispanics. Two American Indians were nominated (Chief Joseph and Sacajawea), but didn't make it to enshrinement.

In general, I suspect that in the future, the lists of famous Americans of the 20th Century will reflect the tastes of the current students of Bronx Community College, so the recent equivalents of Josiah Willard Gibbs and Asa Gray will be even more forgotten than their predecessors.