The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Murphy, Donald Ridgway
(June 25, 1895–September 26, 1974)

–agricultural editor and longtime confidant of Henry A. Wallace —was born in Des Moines, the son of John Clark Murphy and Myrtle (Jones) Murphy. Both sets of grandparents had farmed in Madison County, and his parents had known the Wallaces in Winterset. Murphy's mother was a close friend of Kate Pierce, the wife of James M. Pierce, so young Donald could claim knowledge of both Wallaces' farmer and the Pierces' Iowa Homestead.

    A great-uncle near Hubbard, Oregon, was raising onion sets, and after high school Murphy moved nearby, briefly renting 40 acres near Salem, Oregon, with intermittent attendance at Oregon State College (now University), Corvallis, between 1913 and 1917. He served briefly in World War I, but the war ended before he could be sent overseas.

    Still in uniform in 1919, Murphy sought a position in farm journalism in Des Moines. His first choice of prospective employer was Wallaces' farmer, second was the Iowa Homestead, and third was E. T. Meredith 's Successful Farming. The Wallaces had an opening for a subeditor, hiring Murphy for what became his lifelong career. When Henry A. Wallace became U.S. secretary of agriculture in 1933 and went on leave as editor, Murphy soon replaced him, with the title of acting editor. He was named editor in late 1946. As the result of a merger with the Pierce family's farm paper in 1929, the title became Wallaces' farmer and Iowa Homestead. The Great Depression drastically shrank advertising revenue, so the merged paper changed from weekly to biweekly publication, and the Wallace family lost ownership to Dante M. Pierce. The nationwide trend was toward consolidation or elimination of competing farm papers in each state or region. Murphy, as effective editor of Iowa's sole remaining farm paper, was placed in an influential position. While avoiding open partisanship, Murphy's editorials supported Wallace's New Deal farm policies.

    In 1955 Murphy retired as editor, and his title changed to director of editorial research; from 1961 to 1967 he was contributing editor. From 1940 to 1957 he was also director of editorial research for Pierce's Wisconsin Agriculturist. Murphy's chief innovation, supported by Clifford Gregory at the Wisconsin paper, was in readership surveys. He provided a full account of them in What farmer Read and Like: A Record of Experiments with Readership on Wallaces farmer and Wisconsin Agriculturist, 1938-1961 (1962). Experiments used split runs of front covers, color and placement in illustrations and advertising, shorter and longer words and sentences, and other experiments, followed by careful polling of subscribers. Opinion polls were also conducted on farming issues, such as the use of respirators in dusty conditions, and political affairs. Such polls measured U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson's popularity in the two states falling sharply from 1953 to 1958.

    Murphy was a leading member of the Agriculture Committee on National Policy of the National Planning Association, Washington, D.C., from the committee's formation in 1942. He served as its chairman (1945-1955), succeeding Theodore Schultz, formerly of Iowa State College, and followed by Lauren Soth of the Des Moines Register. The committee's publications attempted to influence agricultural policy, urging that surplus crops be used for economic development abroad and pointing out the benefits of foreign trade.

    Murphy was also a member of the advisory committee of the American Civil Liberties Union and president of the Iowa Civil Liberties Union (ICLU) in 1951-1953, remaining on the ICLU board of directors until his health failed. The ICLU opposed Attorney General (later Governor) Norman Erbe 's attempt to censor the newsstand sale of 42 magazine titles he considered obscene. Other ICLU concerns involving Murphy's leadership included the civil rights of African Americans and the practice of some Iowa school districts that barred married students from school activities, dashing athletes' hopes for college athletic scholarships.

    In addition to his book on readership surveys, Murphy published articles in Advertising Age, Journalism Quarterly, New Republic, New York Times Magazine, Palimpsest, and Printers Ink. He never completed a contemplated "history of farm publications in the twentieth century."

    Upon his death, Wallaces' farmer praised Murphy as "an innovator who continually searched for better ways to do things."He married Zoe Rundlett on May 1, 1923, and they had two sons, Brian and Dennis. Zoe Murphy was home editor for Wallaces' farmer for 31 years, retiring in 1968.
Sources The Donald R. Murphy Papers are in Special Collections, Iowa State University Library, Ames. See also Edward S. Allen, Freedom in Iowa: The Role of the Iowa Civil Liberties Union (1977); and obituaries in the Des Moines Tribune, 9/26/1974, and Wallaces' farmer, 10/12/1974.
Contributor: Earl M. Rogers