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The Doctor-President Who Made Stanford Better

Ray Lyman Wilbur, the university's longest-serving leader, stunted a typhoid epidemic, doubled the student body and built two graduate schools.

Photo: Stanford Archives

NEXT IN LINE: Wilbur (front row, center) at his inauguration on January 22, 1916. To his right is former president David Starr Jordan.

By Theresa Johnston

The frantic call came at 6 o’clock on a Sunday morning. Would Dr. Wilbur please come over at once? The family cook was acting very strangely, the caller said. There was no telling what might happen. 

As Stanford University’s only campus physician and public health officer in the early 1900s, Ray Lyman Wilbur was used to handling dangerous situations. Difficult home births, outbreaks of diphtheria, measles or even polio—all were in a day’s work on the Farm for the lanky Stanford graduate, Class of 1896, MA ’97. Still, there was something about this caller’s voice that made the young family practitioner uneasy. 

Arriving at the house, Wilbur was met by the owner, who silently motioned up the stairway to the cook’s third-floor room. “I knocked and opened the door,” Wilbur recalled in his memoir, “and found the cook sitting up in bed with a big six-shooter pointed at me. ‘God has told me to—’ she said. I held my medicine case up in such a way that her eye would follow with her gun, I hoped. She repeated, ‘God has told me to—’ and again she paused.” Finally, after what seemed to Wilbur “a very long time,” she lowered her guard and let the doctor in. “God has told me,” she announced, “to do just as you say.” 

Wilbur’s unflappable character would be tested many more times during his long career. As a young physiology professor, and then dean from 1911 to 1916, he had to fight for the adoption and survival of Stanford’s fledgling Medical School. His 27-year Stanford presidency—by far the longest in school history—was troubled by student high jinks during the Prohibition Era, tested in the Great Depression and bookended by two world wars. 

Nevertheless, Stanford made remarkable strides under the doctor’s care, including a doubling of the university’s income and under---graduate population, and a tripling in grad-uate student enrollment. The schools of education and business, and many of the Farm’s most iconic buildings, from Memorial Auditorium to Hoover Tower, were constructed under his watch. As a physician, Wilbur was so highly regarded that he was summoned to the San Francisco deathbed of United States President Warren Harding [see sidebar] and elected president of the American Medical Association. The ardent outdoorsman also left lasting footprints at the Department of the Interior, where he served as secretary during the beleaguered presidency of his lifelong Stanford friend Herbert Hoover, ’95. 

Today’s students may regard Wilbur as little more than a name on a residence hall, but a visit to the University Archives offers a fuller picture of this blunt but essentially kindhearted man who believed in scientific progress and was remarkably loyal to old friends. Among the items tucked amid his voluminous papers are photographs and letters from childhood playmates, a neatly handwritten Stanford term paper on Greek and Roman medicine, and a note hastily penciled to his wife from Washington, D.C., during World War I. A 1915 Oakland Tribune clipping praises the newly appointed Stanford president as a man of even temperament, poise and force. “It will mean a good deal to Stanford,” the editors wrote, “to have a president whose home, whose heart and whose fortunes are essentially Californian.”

Wilbur - child
Photo: Stanford Archives
FAMILY ALBUM: Wilbur as a child with his father, Dwight.

Wilbur’s earliest memories were not of poppy-covered foothills but of Midwestern prairies. His father, a Union Army veteran who had been captured by Gen. Stonewall Jackson at the Battle of Harpers Ferry, attended law school at the University of Michigan before settling in the coal-mining town of Boonesboro, Iowa. Wilbur’s mother, a former schoolteacher, was active in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Ray, the fourth of their six children, was born in 1875. 

As a child, Wilbur enjoyed caring for pets and farm animals, fishing and camping—pursuits that intensified when the family relocated, first to Dakota Territory and then to a newly irrigated farming community in Southern California. “My Riverside experience was truly that of a pioneer,” he recalled fondly of his teenage years. “We moved out three miles east of town to a raw sagebrush patch and planted a choice orange orchard.” Neighbors said the Wilbur boy bore a resemblance to a young Abraham Lincoln, and indeed he was a tall youth, 6 feet 4 inches, with a sharp intellect to match.

Set on a career in medicine, Wilbur enrolled at Stanford as a physiology major in the fall of 1892, just one year after the university’s grand opening. A tee-totaler and frugal, he spent much of his extracurricular time working as a lab assistant. “It did not take me long,” he recalled, “to line up with those in Encina Hall who were opposed to the exuberances of the so-called ‘frat’ crowds.” Joined by his like-minded friend Hoover, Wilbur became involved in student government and eventually was elected president of the senior class. Will Irwin, ’99, was among many who remembered Wilbur as “a wise counselor, to whom other men took their perplexities and troubles, such as love affairs and repentance after drink.” 

Wilbur - mother
Photo: Stanford Archives
Wilbur’s mother, Edna, at the family home in Riverside, Calif.

Wilbur got to know his future wife, physiology student Marguerite May Blake, Class of 1897, while they were collecting tide pool specimens at the Hopkins Seaside Laboratory, and they married while he was studying for his MD at Cooper Medical College in San Francisco. Within hours of his return to the Farm, the new assistant professor of physiology and family practitioner was summoned to help a professor’s son suffering from violent abdominal pains. “As there was no local hospital available,” Wilbur recalled, “I had to rush the boy up to the Lane Hospital in San Francisco by train, there being no ambulances. The incident led to the discovery that I was the only medical man on the Stanford campus.” 

Bicycling all over the Farm, Wilbur made patient rounds daily, taught classes and worked in the lab, while Marguerite mothered their five children and served as medical receptionist and bookkeeper in their Alvarado Row house. Athletic injuries and mishaps caused by excessive drinking kept the young physician busy, as did frequent outbreaks of infectious diseases. (“Nothing disorganizes a university campus,” he observed dryly, “like a few cases of smallpox.”) In 1903, when he tried to contain a typhoid epidemic, his skill with a shotgun came in handy while keeping people away from a nearby ranch suspected of providing contaminated milk to the campus. [See “Outbreak”: March/April 2007; stanfordmag.org] Eventually he traded the bicycle for a beloved carriage horse named Bob, and then an automobile—the only one that university co-founder Jane Stanford would allow on campus.

Perhaps the greatest trial Wilbur ever faced was when he was appointed executive head and then dean of Stanford’s struggling new Medical School. The 1908 acquisition of San Francisco’s Cooper Medical College, so soon after the ’06 earthquake, had been controversial. Stanford President John Casper Branner, in particular, “saw it as a menace to the future of Stanford University with its limited endowment,” Wilbur lamented, “while I saw it as the first great gift to a Stanford that was to be one of the great universities of the world.” 

Setting aside precedent, as well as his thriving medical practice, Wilbur turned to outside sources to fund expansion of the school and its affiliated hospital and clinics. By the eve of World War I, the institution had more appli-cants than it could accept and had implemented several novel programs, including an emergency dental clinic and a rotation for interns at the Napa State Hospital. Hoover, by then a university trustee, was so impressed that he took time out of his European wartime relief work to lobby for Wilbur’s leadership of the whole university. “If Stanford had another ten Wilburs in its other departments,” he insisted, “they would have been much further forward than they are today.” 

Wilbur - road
Photo: Stanford Archives
HONORABLE MEN: Wilbur with longtime facilities superintendent Sam McDonald at the dedication of a campus street in McDonald’s honor.

Wilbur’s decisive, no-nonsense style never was more apparent than on January 22, 1916, the day of his Stanford presidential inauguration. “I am going dressed as a man, not as a priest, scholar or doorkeeper,” he wrote, defending his decision to wear a dress coat instead of an academic gown to the ceremony. Another frankly worded letter went out to students and parents that August. “We regret that students are often given too large an allowance of money, and some are given or loaned automobiles by their parents or others,” the new president admonished. “There is no need to supply money for orchids for dance partners, or for taxi hire. The student who is not content to lead the simple, clean, industrious life expected on the Stanford campus should go elsewhere.”

As in his student days, President Wilbur was vexed by fraternities. Early on he threatened to ban chapters that did not maintain academic standards or pay their bills on time, and after World War I he promoted better self-governance and rules regarding pledging, scholarship and financial accountability. (Wilbur particularly loathed hazing, which he called “a combination of cowardice and bullying, absolutely un-American.”) 

To promote healthier activities, he encouraged the construction of Roble Gym, the original football stadium and basketball pavilion, the Sunken Diamond and the Stanford Golf Course. He also rearranged the daily class schedule so that students would have more time to exercise in the late afternoons. As he told diners at an alumni luncheon, “I want them to get warm enough, at least three times a week, to take a shower bath or plunge.”

On the academic side, Wilbur did everything in his power to promote faculty research, including hiring department secretaries for the first time to relieve professors of clerical duties. He liberally disbursed travel/study grants, reconfigured the academic calendar to create a summer quarter and grouped related academic departments within schools to promote interdisciplinary discourse. Determined to correct Stanford’s image as a self-sufficient enclave, he touted the university’s contributions to the common good, securing numerous foundation grants in the process. His innovative “First Million” campaign, in 1922, marked the beginning of organized fund-raising on campus.

In the winter of 1930, Time magazine featured Wilbur on its cover for his new role: U.S. secretary of the interior. Wilbur had been invited to join President Hoover’s cabinet for two reasons, the writers suggested. “One, he was a level-headed executive, and two, he was an old friend who enjoys outdoor life and fishing.” During the previous summer, they noted, President Hoover spent more weekends camping with Wilbur than he spent with any other cabinet member. “The President would catch the fish, and Secretary Wilbur, who plumes himself on his skill as a woodland cook, would prepare them over an open fire.”

Soon Wilbur would be feeling the heat himself. One of his first acts—after changing the Interior Department’s logo from generic eagle to bison—was to revoke numerous government oil-drilling permits to encourage oil conservation. Another “big, hot” problem, according to Time, was the impending construction of the world’s largest dam on the lower Colorado River, across Boulder Canyon. It was Wilbur’s job to apportion power generated by the falling water, a delicate political balancing act that aroused suspicions in Congress. 

Back home on the Stanford campus there were grumblings as well. During Wilbur’s time in Washington, university trustees reluctantly granted him year-by-year leaves of absence (two of them with pay), while chemistry professor Robert Eckles Swain, a less decisive man, served as acting president. The arrangement was so problematic that at one point the Stanford Chaparral satirized Wilbur as the university’s “president-
by-mail.” Clearly, though, Hoover needed his friend during those trying Depression years, and Wilbur loved working for the man he called “The Chief.” One of the proudest days of Wilbur’s life was when he hammered a ceremonial silver spike to start the railroad line serving Boulder Dam—and then promptly renamed the project after Hoover, to astonished murmurs. 

Wilbur - dam
Photo: Stanford Archives
POWER OF THE PEN: While serving as secretary of the interior, Wilbur signed the contract authorizing construction of Hoover Dam. On his right is Phil Swing, a California congressman who pushed for the dam; on his left is Elwood Mead, head of the Bureau of Reclamation, for whom Lake Mead was named.

When Wilbur returned from Washington in 1933, construction on Hoover Dam was a year and a half ahead of schedule and well within cost estimates. He approached subsequent challenges at Stanford, during the Great Depression and World War II, with the same rigor: cutting faculty salaries by 10 percent, raising tuition, lifting the cap on female enrollment, expanding opportunities for students to work their way through school and launching the Stanford Fund. 

Speaking on Stanford’s 50th anniversary celebration in 1941, trustee George Crothers marveled that Wilbur “had found little more [at Stanford] than a standard type American college, and in 25 years developed it into a university.” Another long-serving Stanford president, J.E. Wallace Sterling, felt the same way. “Scientist and man of reason that he was, Dr. Wilbur recognized that patterns of education change, but he held devotedly to his concept of a university of high degree,” Sterling observed. “He was one of Stanford’s greatest sons.”


Theresa Johnston, ’83, is a frequent contributor to Stanford.

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