An experiment at Johns Hopkins turns 50 years old next month, and the people who've conducted it, past and present, will honor the occasion with a special celebration.
In April of 1950, Hopkins graduate Corbin Gwaltney pulled the last $100 out of his savings to bet on a new idea. He had a crazy concept for a different approach to alumni magazines, an idea that he was convinced could work for his alma mater and make the resulting publication a more genuinely interesting and stimulating experience for its readers.
Gwaltney's idea, according to current Johns Hopkins Magazine editor Sue De Pasquale, was to expand the magazine's focus beyond the alumni statistics and alumni news items dominant at the time in alumni magazines.
"He wanted an alumni magazine that would be a source of continuing education for its readers," De Pasquale explains. "He wanted meaty, thought-provoking stories that still tried to ask the hard questions. He knew the readers were educated and wanted to be dealt with in an honest way."
The magazine, as senior writer Dale Keiger puts it, worked in "an envelope of intellectual curiosity," with writers who were full contributors actively investigating and exploring the many fields of endeavor at Hopkins.
"The writer's role was to continue the intellectual engagement of people who had moved on," Keiger explains.
To complement the new approach to content, Gwaltney, who later went on to help launch The Chronicle of Higher Education, also reset the illustrative priorities of an alumni publication. He strived for a Life Magazine-style look centered on large, rich black-and-white photos and illustrations.
Gwaltney's $100 went to the production of a "dummy" version of the magazine, a mock-up that he showed to then provost P. Stewart Macaulay and others, who liked it so much they set Gwaltney up with funding to produce nine issues annually.
When it landed in mailboxes in April 1950, Gwaltney had achieved a breakthrough that would serve as a model for many other institutions' alumni magazines. The new publication, which won praise from Time and Newsweek, would go on to win the top award in its field, the Robert Sibley Award, a record nine times in its first 50 years.
Hopkins Magazine will honor the anniversary of Gwaltney's well-placed bet with an expanded issue available in early April and a luncheon in May to honor the magazine's staff "alumni." The anniversary issue is dedicated to exemplifying the pioneering spirit of Hopkins in the stories of 50 daring and creative people with Hopkins connections.
"The magazine itself is pioneering, so our theme is a tribute to that," Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson, senior writer, says.
"We knew we didn't want to do 50 years of magazine history, because that would have been so boring even our relatives wouldn't have read it," Dale Keiger, senior writer, jokes.
There are a few pages of magazine history, including a timeline and reminiscences from former editors. But most of the issue is dedicated to exploring innovations through stories of individual lives.
"We wanted to write about why certain people were pioneers, not about what made them famous," Melissa Hendricks, senior science writer, says. "We wanted to tell the stories of individual ideas that succeeded."
The new issue is encyclopedic in at least two respects. The magazine's staff, plus a dozen past staff members and contributors, searched out pioneers past, present and soon-to-be. They tracked down the facts on historical groundbreakers like Henry Rowland, the university's first physics professor, who significantly improved a device astronomers used to analyze a star's spectrum; Engineering Dean William Kouwhenhoven, who in 1933 confirmed that an electric countershock could restore normal rhythm in an erratically beating heart; and Paul Nitze, a diplomat who founded the School of Advanced International Studies, which was later named for him.
The writers also interviewed contemporary pioneers, like D.A. Henderson, now at the School of Public Health, who led the first successful fight against a major infectious disease, the campaign to eliminate smallpox; and the composers at Peabody who were among the first to use computers and electronics to compose and perform music.
Finally, they placed their own bets on some contemporary researchers who seem to be likely candidates to one day be regarded as pioneers. These include Robert Slavin, whose Success for All program for revamping and standardizing school curriculum is producing improved test scores in a significant number of schools; and the astronomers at the Applied Physics Laboratory who a few months ago were the first to put a satellite into close orbit around an asteroid, touching off a flood of excitement in astronomers and media alike.
The magazine is also encyclopedic because editors and writers made sure to include a representative sample of pioneers from the many different branches of the university--the schools of Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Medicine, Public Health, Nursing, Professional Studies and Business Education, Peabody, SAIS and APL.
In one major and unavoidable respect, though, the issue can't be compared to an encyclopedia: in the vast throngs of people whose lives have been touched by Hopkins or whose life's work was conducted at Hopkins, there were and are far more than 50 outstanding pioneers.
"This is really just a sampling of some of the ideas that had good potential for stories," says Cavanaugh Simpson.
De Pasquale makes the same point in her introduction to the issue, and encourages people to post suggestions of other pioneers on the magazine's website, http://www.jhu.edu/~jhumag/.
Hopkins is a big place in many ways, and the anniversary issue is the magazine's way of continuing to strive to "mirror the spirit of the place that it covers," as De Pasquale puts it.
"We look at questions that are central to the university, questions that a lot of people are talking about," Cavanaugh Simpson says.
All involved in the magazine's production agree that it's a stimulating, highly educational experience.
"I've been here 10 years, and I'm still just amazed at the brainpower and the creativity of the people at Hopkins," says Hendricks. "It's just stellar."
To read the 50th anniversary issue of Johns Hopkins Magazine, call 410-516-7645 for a copy or check out the Web edition at http://www.jhu.edu/~jhumag.