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Science, Modern Medicine, and Lloyd C. Douglas

by Ronald R Johnson (

One thing clearly stands out about Douglas’s years at the University of Michigan: by the time he left in 1921, he was well-versed in the history of science, and in particular the medical sciences. Most of his novels (written in the 1930s) are either about doctors or include scenes with doctors and/or nurses. Douglas was very much at home writing about surgeries, or about physicians diagnosing illnesses. When I first read some of those novels, I wondered if he had been a doctor; no, he was never a doctor, but during his years in Ann Arbor he spent a lot of time with doctors who taught at the medical school, and he did a lot of reading on the subject. Long before he wrote his novels (as early as 1920), his magazine articles were filled with medical and scientific references.

The study of medicine had only recently been transformed in America. As Kenneth Ludmerer explains in his book, Learning to Heal: The Development of American Medical Education (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), the entire system of medical education that we now take for granted had only begun in the last couple of decades of the 1800s, in the state colleges. The Johns Hopkins Medical School took the lead as a state-of-the-art training institution, and in the early 20th century there were only a few other groundbreaking medical schools. The University of Michigan was one of them. (See Horace W. Davenport, Not Just Any Medical School: The Science, Practice, and Teaching of Medicine at the University of Michigan, 1850-1941 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999).) In other words, Ann Arbor was a great place for Lloyd Douglas to learn about the practice of medicine.

From Horace W. Davenport, Not Just Any Medical School: The Science, Practice, and Teaching of Medicine at the University of Michigan, 1850-1941 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999), p. 132: “George Dock… teaching in amphitheater of Catherine Street Hospital. The ‘patient’ is probably a student.” I’ve included it here because it’s from around the time that Douglas was in Ann Arbor observing real surgeries.

In their biography of their father, Douglas’s daughters write:

It is a curious thing how many people thought the novelist, Lloyd Douglas, was a medical doctor… He wrote with authority on operations, and the hospital atmosphere he so often described in his books was taken from years of first-hand observation. He soaked himself in medical lore for the love of it. Often in Ann Arbor surgeons would tell him when they were to perform an unusual operation and invite him to watch.

Virginia Douglas Dawson and Betty Douglas Wilson, The Shape of Sunday: An Intimate Biography of Lloyd C. Douglas (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin/Riverside, 1952), p. 102.

He was there as a minister…

He became so acquainted with the life of the hospital that he seemed part of the organization. Doctors would call him in when they had patients who were depressed and needed spiritual treatment. His method was different with each one. He offered hope to those who wanted hope, but he didn’t believe in being fatuously optimistic with desperately sick people. If they wanted to talk of death, he let them.


…and yet, as a writer, he was taking it all in, “soaking himself” in it, as his daughters said. From 1920 onward, even his religious writing constantly referred to medical analogies or incidents from the history of science. His medical novels were still a decade away. But the germ of the idea was already there. Sometime while he was living in Ann Arbor, he read a newspaper article that he thought would make a good novel someday. He clipped it out and carried it in his wallet.

It reported the death of a doctor who had drowned from a heart attack while his pulmotor, which he always kept in the boathouse for such an emergency, was being used to revive a young man across the lake. The idea never failed to intrigue Daddy. What had the young man thought when he realized his life had been saved at the cost of another’s? Had he been stricken beyond natural remorse by the fact that an experienced, valuable doctor had died and he – young, but of small use to society – lived? Had he been conscious of a duty to replace the older man?

Ibid., pp. 204-205.

That was the setup for the opening chapter of Magnificent Obsession, his first novel, in 1929. Since he read the article during his years in Ann Arbor, it’s likely that he began collecting material even then, at least in an informal way, while he was making his rounds at the hospital.

At any rate, his years in Ann Arbor educated him in both science and medicine, and from 1920 onwards we see him referring often to medical and scientific analogies in his writings.

For a free PDF copy of the booklet, The Secret Investment of Lloyd C. Douglas, fill out the form below:

Briefly Presbyterian

by Ronald R Johnson (

When Lloyd Douglas resigned as pastor of Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington, DC, he had already made up his mind to change denominations. A year later, he did so. In a handwritten note on one of the pages of his 1909-1915 scrapbook, he wrote:

“On September 18, 1912, in a telegram to… the president of the Maryland Synod [of the Lutheran Church in America], I formally severed my connection with that Body and was unanimously elected on that same day to membership in the Presbytery of Bloomington [Illinois]…”

There is also a printed report of meeting minutes, stating that Douglas was received into the fold.

But other than teaching a Sunday School class for university students at a Presbyterian congregation in Champaign, he never actually served in the Presbyterian Church.

As I survey his career, I believe it was his plan all along to be a Congregationalist. As early as 1909, when he was a Lutheran pastor in Lancaster, Ohio, he was invited to lunch with Dr. Washington Gladden, the esteemed pastor of the First Congregational Church of Columbus.

Dr. Washington Gladden

Rev. Gladden was one of the leading social gospel preachers of his day. We catch a glimpse of just how highly he was respected when we read the letter of invitation from E. Lee Howard (dated July 14, 1909). It says, in part:

“It is the custom of the little coterie of Congregational ministers to gather informally in Dr. Gladden’s study every Monday at 11:30 o’clock, for an hour of good fellowship, after which we go to luncheon together. The Doctor is home this month, although several of the fellows are away. The Doctor is exceedingly cordial in his greeting to young ministers, and he was interested in the account which I gave of you the Monday after your address at Kenton. You will enjoy an hour with him very much, and if you will meet me at the Neil House at 11:30, we will go from there to the study in the church.”

How formal! “The Doctor”! “You will enjoy it very much”! And yet this must have cheered young Douglas a great deal, to be invited into this highly-cultured group of men (“the fellows”) and accepted as one of them. The visit itself was undocumented. We don’t know what happened. But the event must have made an impression on him, for in his final months as a Lutheran pastor (late 1910-early 1911), when he was already planning his next career move, he sent two article submissions to The Congregationalist and Christian World, a bi-weekly magazine. Both were immediately published. In the second one, the editor inaccurately referred to Douglas as “a Washington (DC) Congregational minister.”

Years later, he said that his work at the University of Illinois put him in touch with Congregationalists, although it’s not clear what he meant by that, since the YMCA introduced him to leaders from a wide variety of denominations and he had already made connections with Congregationalists. While in Champaign-Urbana, he continued to send article submissions to The Congregationalist and Christian World, and at some point (I’ve been unable to determine exactly when) he became good friends with Dr. Carl Patton, who was pastor of the First Congregational Church of Ann Arbor (adjacent to the University of Michigan) from 1900 to 1911.

Given all this, I’m not sure why he joined the Bloomington Presbytery. It did allow him to “sever” his relationship with the Lutheran Church while remaining a licensed minister, and perhaps he knew that Congregational search committees would accept a Presbyterian candidate. Especially since this happened at the same time that he taught Sunday School at the new McKinley Memorial Presbyterian Church – the erection of which was a pet project of Thomas Arkle Clark, who was one of the faculty representatives on the YMCA Governing Board – it was probably just a good opportunity to change his affiliation. At any rate, Lloyd Douglas was briefly (and inconsequentially) a Presbyterian. Just a little trivia for you.

Early in 1915, the First Congregational Church of Ann Arbor (where Carl Patton had been pastor for 11 years) extended a call to Douglas, and he accepted it. He remained a Congregational minister for the rest of his life.

His self-introduction at Ann Arbor was interesting, though. At Washington, DC, he had introduced himself to the press corps as a former reporter. The way he introduced himself to the people of Ann Arbor was quite different. It shows how much his experience in Champaign-Urbana had loosened him up and made him more humorous and nonchalant. I’ll tell you about that in the next post.

To receive a free PDF of the booklet, The Secret Investment of Lloyd C. Douglas, fill out the form below:

A Well-Kept Secret about Lloyd C Douglas

by Ronald R Johnson (

In his 1929 novel Magnificent Obsession, Lloyd C Douglas taught that we can gain a special intimacy with God if we invest in the lives of others and do it secretly. Throughout the years of my research, I’ve been on the lookout for signs that Douglas practiced what he preached, knowing that, if he did those things in secret, then it would be difficult – if not impossible – for me to discover them.

It was difficult, but I did discover a clever investment he made in a young shopkeeper during his time at the University of Illinois. I don’t have conclusive proof, but I have a very strong case. I believe that he wrote anonymous ads in the Daily Illini for Roger Zombro, owner of a haberdashery on Green Street.

In the two photographs below, Jack Scanlan (Class of 1911) is surrounded by four of his female classmates. They’re goofing off in the first picture, but it looks as though, in the second one, the photographer has spoken to them sternly and tried to get a serious portrait, although there’s still a hint of mischief on some of the faces.

Jack A. Scanlan Scrapbook, 1907-1911, University Archives, Student Scrapbooks and Papers, Series No. 41/20/39, Box 1, University of Illinois.

Notice what young Mr. Scanlan is wearing: not just a suit, but an old-fashioned detachable collar, as well as a tie. That was the dress code in those days.

At his store at 604 East Green Street, Roger Zombro sold just such small-ticket items: shirts, collars, ties, umbrellas, etc. He had a lot of competition, for there were bigger clothing stores in town, and they sold suits as well as accessories. They also put more money and thought into their advertising in the student newspaper.

Here’s how Roger Zombro originally presented himself to the student body:

Daily Illini, Wednesday, September 20, 1911, p. 6.

Doesn’t exactly make you want to stop what you’re doing and go to his store, does it? But then, a year later, his persona changed drastically:

Daily Illini, Thursday, October 31, 1912

The ad mentions campaign cigars because the 1912 presidential election (Taft vs. Wilson vs. Teddy Roosevelt) was wrapping up. This ad is so much more interesting, more lively, more in tune with the life of the students it was designed to reach. And I’m convinced it was one of many that were written anonymously by Lloyd C. Douglas between Fall 1912 and Winter 1915, as a personal investment in the life of Roger Zombro – an investment that not only boosted Zombro’s career but also helped Douglas find his voice as a writer.

I had to do a lot of detective work to uncover this secret – both men were serious about keeping it secret, apparently – and there’s not enough space on this page to tell you how I did it. I’d love to send you the free PDF document in which I lay out my case. Just fill in your name and email address in the form below.

Leaving the Lutheran Church

by Ronald R Johnson (

The Augsburg Confession

Lloyd Douglas resigned as pastor of Luther Place Memorial Church in July 1911, effective September 1. He told his congregation he was leaving to serve the YMCA at the University of Illinois. And that was true, but it was only part of the truth. Another part of it was that he felt an immediate need to leave the denomination.

Douglas had been a Lutheran all his life. When he was very young, his father A.J. Douglas was a Lutheran pastor. Prior to that, A.J. had been an attorney and then a school superintendent, and he had met and married the wife of his old age – Lloyd Douglas’s mother – when she was teaching at his school. Lloyd Douglas had siblings who were a generation older than he was; they were A.J.’s children from a previous marriage, and their mother had died, leaving A.J. a widower until he met Lloyd’s mother. A.J. had promised the Lord that he would be a minister, but he didn’t make good on that promise until he was old. As compensation, he groomed his youngest son for the ministry. A.J. took the boy with him as he made his rounds to see his parishioners and to preach at the multiple small-town churches under his charge. From as far back as Douglas could remember, he had sat beside his father in their horse-and-carriage as A.J. went on his rounds, and together they parsed Greek words and talked in depth about the ministry. The Lutheran ministry.

So it was no small matter sometime in 1911 when Lloyd Douglas turned to his wife on the way home from Luther Place one day and said, “Besse, I’m going to get out of the church.” Besse told their daughters the story years later: “I was terribly shocked,” she said. “He had talked that way before, but this time I felt he really meant it. The first thing I thought was, ‘What will his mother say?'” (Virginia Douglas Dawson and Betty Douglas Wilson, The Shape of Sunday: An Intimate Biography of Lloyd C Douglas (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1952), p. 72.) (His father had already died.)

Predictably, his mother wasn’t too keen on the idea. Nor were Besse’s parents, the Reverend and Mrs. Porch, also of the Lutheran Church.

But Douglas had to break free, especially now. For in the summer of 1911, the General Synod of the Lutheran Church in America had its annual convention, and they passed constitutional amendments that Douglas could not tolerate.

The conference was held at – of all places – Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington, DC. The meetings began Wednesday, June 7 and ended Sunday, June 11. Tickets were needed in order to attend the opening session on Wednesday, which featured speeches by President William Howard Taft, House Speaker Champ Clark, and Rev. Lloyd C Douglas. The legislation that bothered Douglas so much was passed on Friday, June 9.

It had to do with the Augsburg Confession, a detailed statement of faith that was written by Philip Melanchton in 1530. For our purposes, the content of that document doesn’t matter. What matters is that the members of the conference affirmed that “the unaltered Augsburg Confession” is “a ‘correct exhibition of the faith and doctrine’ of the church as founded upon the Scriptures” (Evening Star, Friday, June 9, 1911, p. 3). In the years prior to this, the Lutheran Church in America had treated the Augsburg Confession as “substantially correct,” leaving its ministers free to interpret the scriptures for themselves, without regard to whether their interpretations matched those of the Confession. But this subtle change in verbiage (that the Confession was a “correct exhibition of the faith and doctrine”) now meant that the Augsburg Confession was just as authoritative as the Bible.

Milton Valentine, the editor of the Lutheran Observer who had done so much to help Douglas in his ministerial career, had now, in the past two years, had a chance to meet him in person, since Douglas had moved to the East Coast. During the time that Douglas served as pastor of Luther Place, he and Valentine met on more than one occasion and deepened their friendship. It was Valentine, more than anyone else, who understood why Douglas resigned from Luther Place. He didn’t know all of the factors involved, but he rightly guessed this much of it.

Just after Douglas resigned, Valentine wrote to him. He began by congratulating him, then stated his true feelings: “My regret is that this work will take you out of active connection with the General Synod, where we are so badly in need of men who have knowledge of the times in which they live and are in sympathy with its movements – not theological pedants, obscurantists, but men with their faces forward.” Then he suggested that the constitutional changes made at the church conference were the real reason Douglas was leaving: “From what I know of your mental makeup and habits of thought, I feel that the recent meeting of the General Synod has not been without its influence in your decision to take up this new work. I do not know when the outlook was more discouraging in the General Synod.” He stopped short of asking Douglas to confirm his guess, but he was right.

From Douglas’s very first sermons and published articles, we see in him a note of confidence that was only possible because he felt totally at liberty to think for himself and to share his thoughts with others. Freedom of thought and of expression were things he had always taken for granted. The constitutional changes made at the church conference threatened those freedoms. And Douglas needed intellectual freedom now more than ever. I’ll explain why in my next blog post.

For a free PDF of the booklet, The Secret Investment of Lloyd C Douglas, fill out the form below:

The Lloyd C Douglas Papers at the Bentley Historical Library

by Ronald R Johnson (

After Lloyd Douglas died, his daughters donated 6 boxes of his private papers to the Bentley Historical Library on the campus of the University of Michigan. Douglas had spent several happy years as senior minister of the First Congregational Church of Ann Arbor, a church which includes within its edifice a chapel in his honor; so the University of Michigan seemed like a logical place for his papers to be kept in archive.

My own exploration of those papers began with Boxes 5 and 6, which contain his scrapbooks. Here is the cover of the earliest scrapbook in the collection. He originally used it for notes he took during his “Liturgies” course while in seminary but then turned it into a scrapbook.

Douglas’s scrapbooks are a wealth of information. They contain mostly newspaper clippings of his sermons, and these are very detailed, giving us the next best thing to the sermon transcript itself. They also contain letters, programs, newsletters, newspaper accounts of wedding ceremonies and funerals at which he officiated and speeches he gave at high school graduations and Veterans events; and he even pasted in the articles he published in various periodicals. There is one page of train tickets, giving just a sample of the many trips he took for speaking engagements. (See the left page of the following two-page spread):

We also have the letters of “call” he received from each of his congregations, including the salary and other compensation offered. Obviously, these scrapbooks are rich in information.

Boxes 1 through 2 contain his extensive correspondence with his daughters and with his editor at Houghton Mifflin Publishing Company. Here is a letter he sent his oldest daughter Betty from a hotel in Chicago in 1926:

These files mostly cover the years after Douglas became a bestselling author, from the early 1930s to the end of his life in 1951. In some respects they are more insightful than the scrapbooks, since they give us his unguarded thoughts conveyed to people he trusted. But they also don’t give us the context quite as nicely as the scrapbooks do, and we often have to infer what is happening from the clues within the letters themselves.

Box 3 contains sermons and speeches. Even though his scrapbooks give us detailed newspaper reports of his sermons, Box 3 includes actual sermons. Douglas always typed out his sermons on Saturday afternoon, then delivered them extemporaneously on Sunday. Here’s an example of a sermon he preached in Boston in 1931. At this point in his career, he used little pages that would fit in his hand, but the punch holes show that he kept them in a small three-ring binder.

Box 4 has files pertaining to his most famous novel, The Robe, as well as miscellaneous items, including day planners and small notebooks.

Here are the chapter summaries he had in mind for a travel book he never wrote:

I’ve spent years studying these boxes (my first visit was in 2005), and I still have a lot more to see. But now that I’ve given you the overview, in future blog posts I can share with you some of the things that I have learned from these sources.

For a free PDF copy of the booklet, The Secret Investment of Lloyd C Douglas, fill out the form below: