The Wire @ WPI Online
VOLUME 11, NO. 2     SEPTEMBER 1997

Juneau? Mendenhall is famous there

A clipping from an Alaskan newspaper received by News Service Director Neil Norum noted the many geographic locations in the Juneau area that are named after WPI's third president Thomas C. Mendenhall, who served from 1894 to 1901. The city's most famous landmark, a glacier, is named for him, as is Mendenhall Valley, where roughly 40 percent of Juneau's residents live. There is also a Mendenhall lake, a river, a peninsula, a mall, a golf course, and even Mendenhall fudge.

Why was this name attached to these things? There's an interesting history surrounding Thomas Corwin Mendenhall. Born in 1841, he never graduated from an academy or college, and yet at the age of 20 he was teaching high school. In 1873, when he was 32, he became a professor at Ohio State University; when he left in 1878 he was awarded a Ph.D. He eventually taught at Japan's Imperial University and established the first technical schools in the Orient.

In 1886, Mendenhall became president of Rose Polytechnic Institute in Indiana, succeeding Charles O. Thompson, who was, coincidentally, WPI's first president. He left Rose in 1889 to become the government's geodetic survey superintendent and was in that post in 1892 when the glacier was named after him. Historians believe the Mendenhall/Juneau connection is so strong because it was under his administration that the international boundary between Canada and the U.S. was established.

The news clipping noted that it is uncertain if Mendenhall ever visited Juneau (some say he did, others that he did not), but that he held extensive scientific knowledge about the glacier named after him.

Mendenhall will probably be best remembered as the WPI president who caused the resignation of two of the university's first faculty members, Milton P. Higgins and George I. Alden, when he began to look on the Washburn Shops with distrust and sold off the profitable hydraulic elevator business in 1896. In the first 27 years of WPI's operation, commercial transactions of the Washburn Shops approached $1 million. In Seventy Years of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Herbert F. Taylor said that 1896 witnessed the greatest turnover in the faculty that the Institute had ever experienced. Fortunately for WPI, Alden and Higgins devoted their efforts to Norton Company and both later became trustees and benefactors of the university.

Photo captions: Juneau's magnificent Mendenhall glacier, photographed by outdoor photographer Pat Costello, who maintains Cool Juneau Photos, a website featuring his works; Thomas C. Mendenhall, WPI's third president, lent his name to several geographic features in and around Juneau, Alaska.

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Last modified: Fri Oct 3 12:07:08 EDT 1997