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

Introduction from the Editors
The character of a state is determined by the character of the people who inhabit it. Iowa has been blessed with citizens of strong character who have made invaluable contributions to the state and to the nation. Of course, the creators of a biographical dictionary for any state in the Union could likely make the same claim. And yet. . . . John Schacht, one of our contributors, has made a serious argument that Iowa’s cultural climate, at least in the last half of the nineteenth century, might have made it more than coincidental that “a disproportionate share of the influential people of the 1930s came from Iowa.” In an article in the Palimpsest in 1982, he gives a long list of influential people in various areas, but focuses on four: Herbert Hoover, John L. Lewis, Henry A. Wallace, and Harry Hopkins. “Aside from the towering figure of FDR himself,” Schacht notes, “it would be difficult to name four people as important in national affairs between 1930 and 1940.”

Iowa’s influence, of course, was not limited to the 1930s. In an earlier time, national political figures such as William Boyd Allison and David B. Henderson carried considerable weight. Nor are significant Iowans limited to those who served in the political realm. Some were among the first Euro-Americans to explore the land that became Iowa (Allen, Kearny, Marquette). Others were among the Natives who were here when those explorers arrived (Black Hawk, Keokuk, Poweshiek) and lent their names to places that developed in their wake. Yet others developed some of those places (Burrows, Grinnell, Scholte). Some invented products that improved our lives (Atanasoff, Froelich, Tokheim). Some made significant contributions to fields of scholarship (Calvin, Seashore, Benjamin Shambaugh). Others wrote literature, performed music, or created art that inspired our imaginations (Engle, Aldrich, Beiderbecke, Wood). Some advocated causes that changed society (Catt, Griffin, Wittenmyer). This being Iowa, many were noted educators (Sabin, May, Samuelson). We do not want to claim, with Thomas Carlyle, that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” But we do agree with the writer Samuel Johnson that “biography is, of the various kinds of narrative writing, that which is most eagerly read and most easily applied to the purposes of life.”

We have gathered biographical sketches from a large number of contributors on as many Iowans who made significant contributions to the public life of the state and the nation as we could fit in one affordable volume. We culled these more than 400 names from a much longer list of over 2,000 names, almost all of whom could justifiably claim a place in this volume. Many of the names we include will be instantly recognizable to most Iowans; others are largely forgotten but deserve to be remembered. We are fully aware that a different set of names would result from the deliberations of any other group of people. (Even we, at a different time, would undoubtedly end up with a somewhat different list.) We were guided by a set of criteria that we established at the outset:
Anyone born in Iowa or who spent at least 20 years in Iowa was eligible for consideration. We also included a few people who did not meet either of these criteria but whose contribution to Iowa was significant enough to make an exception (Marquette, Lucas, Atanasoff).

We excluded, however, anyone who was still alive after December 31, 2000. This, of course, eliminates many people—Norman Borlaug, Louise Noun, and Robert Ray, for example—whom users might reasonably expect to find in such a volume, but it is a common practice in biographical dictionaries such as this to include only persons who are deceased as a means of ensuring a full assessment of each subject’s entire life and impact.

Except for those still alive after December 31, 2000, we included all Iowa governors, U.S. senators, and U.S. Supreme Court justices (Samuel Freeman Miller is the only one in this last category; Wiley Rutledge, whom some would include, did not meet our other criteria as an Iowan).

We gave preference to people who made significant contributions to Iowa, the nation, or the international community, and within that consideration we gave further preference to those whose significant contributions were either specifically to Iowa or, if to the nation or the world, were made from a base in Iowa. There are certainly exceptions included here. We included quite a few writers who left Iowa when they reached adulthood, but gave preference to those whose writing reflected something of their roots in Iowa or the Midwest. The point is that we were not interested in compiling a biographical dictionary of famous people who happened to have been born in Iowa or lived here for only a few years (George Washington Carver, for example). The Des Moines Register has been publishing a series of biographies of such people for a number of years now. All of those biographies— hundreds of them, all well done—are accessible on the Register’s Web site. They have tended to focus on more recent figures, and give disproportionate attention to stage and screen personalities, few of whom are included here.

Even with these criteria in mind, most of the choices were necessarily subjective. We were reminded how our assumptions about who is important are bound by our own time and cultural assumptions as one of us searched for sources to recommend to the author of our entry on Dexter Bloomer (best known now as the husband of noted women’s rights activist Amelia Jenks Bloomer and a borderline call for inclusion in this volume). In a biographical sketch in the Annals of Iowa in 1874, the article’s penultimate paragraph said: “We may, perhaps, find time to give a sketch in these ANNALS of the wife of Mr. Bloomer, who has for thirty-four years shared his fortunes and misfortunes, and who has assisted in frontier life, in making western Iowa what it is to-day.”

Entries are included alphabetically, and each entry includes the subject’s name and date of birth and death (if known). Most entries include place of birth, information about the subject’s education, and an outline of the subject’s career and contribution. Entries are typically about 750 words, though we have granted more space for subjects who seemed particularly significant or whose varied careers required more space to explicate. Each entry includes a brief bibliography to allow readers to follow up with more detailed accounts of the subject’s life, where such are available. If a person who has his or her own entry is mentioned in another entry, the person’s name is set in bold type.

The three state-supported institutions of higher learning in Iowa have all gone through name changes in the course of their history. We have tried to refer to them by the name that is historically appropriate for the time of each individual reference. The University of Iowa was officially the State University of Iowa until 1964. Iowa State University was Iowa Agricultural College and Model Farm (which we will shorten to Iowa Agricultural College) from its founding until 1897, Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (or just Iowa State College) from 1898 to 1959, and since 1960 has been Iowa State University of Science and Technology (which we shorten to Iowa State University). The University of Northern Iowa was Iowa State Normal School from its founding until 1909, Iowa State Teachers College from 1909 to 1961, and State College of Iowa from 1961 to 1967.

Although not everyone will find every Iowan they consider prominent in these pages, it is our hope that most of you will find in this volume the information that you seek and a reflection of the character of the state of Iowa and its people. Most of all, we hope that, with Samuel Johnson, you may be able to apply what you find here “to the purposes of life.”