James J. Walsh, MD, PhD, ScD, Class of 1880
Prep Teacher (1884-1886)
Physician; Historian; Author
Founding Dean, Fordham College of Medicine
Founder, Fordham University Press
James Joseph Walsh was an extraordinary man of many seeming contradictions. He was a reactionary and a progressive; he was a man of unwavering faith and a man of great reason; he was a medievalist and a neurologist. In his time, he would be accused of stubbornly clinging to the mores of an age of superstition, and yet, he was at the forefront of some of the emerging sciences of his day. Even for the 19th century, he was old-school in every sense of the phrase, though his famous practice of sending students out of the lecture hall and into the Zoo and Botanical Garden for hands-on research still seems cutting-edge today, as does his insistence on tackling contemporary social issues in his scholarship. There are those who would say that Walsh was antithetical to the education of women, but then again, the quintessential Fordham boy would marry a college girl and spend part of his career teaching sociology at College Miseracordia in Dallas, Pennsylvania — a women’s college. In the end, James Walsh was a complex man in a complex age. He was a scholar, a scientist and a Catholic apologist who loved God, the Church and Fordham.
Walsh was born in Archbald, Pennsylvania on April 12, 1865, the son of Martin Walsh and Bridget Golden Walsh, successful merchants, owners of Golden & Walsh General Store. Among his siblings were Mary, Margaret, Martin, Josephine and Joseph, Prep Class of 1886. As was sadly common enough in the 19th century, several other Walsh children did not survive to adulthood, Bernard, John and Theresa among them. There was also the family matriarch, James’ grandmother, Margaret "Peggy" Kearney Golden, who had survived the difficult sea-crossing from Ireland to Canada as a girl, and then made her way on foot to Pennsylvania where she married coal miner Martin Golden. From her James learned Irish Gaelic as a boy, and also, it seems, his tenacity.
Jimmy began his illustrious academic career at Parson’s Public School, a one-room schoolhouse, before attending St. Mary’s in Wilkes-Barre, a parochial school maintained by the Sisters of Mercy. His favorite teacher there was Sr. Mary Celestine, on whose instruction he would look back fondly and with great appreciation all his life. He graduated St. Mary’s, and at age 13, matriculated at Fordham Prep, or as it was then known, the Second Division of St. John’s College.
While they made a comfortable living for their family, especially compared to their mining town neighbors, Martin and Bridget Walsh were not as wealthy as some of the other parents sending their sons to live at the Jesuit boarding school in Fordham, New York. And so, they negotiated a deal with Fr. F. William Gockeln, the president of St. John’s College, to pay an annual tuition of $300 even, all other fees waived — sort of an early instance of financial aid.
Walsh wrote frequently to his parents, and in those letters it is apparent that young James was very happy at Rose Hill. In all his precocious charm, he offers glimpses of Prep life as he knew it: hoecakes for breakfast, meals taken in disciplined silence, chicken pox outbreaks in the Division, weightlifting in the small basement gym, mastering the conjugation of τύπτω (an accomplishment to which Prep boys can relate to this very day) and even the preferred form of corporal punishment in those days: a strap across the hands. Rev. Raymond Schroth, SJ devotes a chapter of his Fordham: A History and Memoir to Walsh’s Prep years, years during which Jimmy Walsh throve.
After graduating from the Second Division, Walsh continued at the college, from which he graduated in 1884 at 19 years of age. He remained at Fordham serving as a Prep teacher for two years while he worked towards his master’s degree, perhaps even teaching his brother, Joe, who had arrived in Rose Hill to embark on his Fordham career. In the late 1880s, James would work towards his doctorate, earning his degree in the last year of that decade.
From Fordham, James entered the Jesuit seminary at Woodstock, Maryland, but his plans to remain in the Society did not match with either God’s plans, or his superiors’. Though he had always been plagued with health problems, during his time in Maryland, the usually husky Walsh began to lose weight rapidly and his eyesight began to fail. In 1892, he was asked to leave. Returning to Pennsylvania, he attempted to enter the diocesan seminary in Scranton, but the bishop there also declined his request.
Redirected, but undefeated, the stubborn grandson of Peggy Kearney discerned that his future lay in medicine. With his younger brother Joe, he attended medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, from which they graduated in 1895. Because medical education was considered superior in Europe at the time, the Walsh brothers travelled to Paris, Rome, Berlin and Vienna for their post-graduate studies. Their overseas mentors included individuals such as Rudolf Virchow and Ivan Pavlov whose names are still invoked today.
Returning to the United States, James opened a practice in New York City and was associated with a number of hospitals throughout the area. In 1907, after several years on the faculty at the New York Polyclinic, Walsh returned to Rose Hill to join the faculty of Fordham University’s new School of Medicine, serving as dean and professor of nervous diseases — a field today called psychiatry. James gave his special attention to two areas: physiological psychology (a study of how the mind influences physical health) and the history of medicine. Along the way, he also convened an extension course in neurology and psychiatry attended by American as well as numerous eminent European psychiatrists and neurologists, and maintained editorial roles at several medical journals, including the Journal of the American Medical Association, or JAMA, which remains one of the most prestigious medical periodicals in the world. Walsh also founded the Fordham University Press, today the oldest Catholic university press in America, and wrote several books on the history of medicine, science and psychotherapy. Walsh remained dean for five years.
On August 14, 1915, James married teacher Julia Heulet Freed, a Barnard College alumna, Class of 1907. They would have two children, a daughter, Moira, and a son, James, Jr. who would graduate from the college in 1937.
Throughout his career, Walsh distinguished himself both by his work in science and medicine, and by his tireless and public battle against anti-Catholic sentiment, the charge that the Catholic Church was and always had always been opposed to scientific inquiry, and the idea that somehow science and religion were incompatible — a notion wholly unacceptable to a man who had devoted his life to both.
After his Fordham years, James Walsh continued to teach at various colleges, including College Miseracordia (later, Miseracordia University), where his sister, Josephine, served on the board of trustees. He was a noted lecturer across the country and received honorary degrees from various institutions. Walsh was a prolific writer throughout his career. While some of his pieces, such as Some Notes on the Bacteriology of Mumps, are strictly clinical, over time he would turn his attention more and more to the history of science in the Church, the history of medicine and contemporary social problems with an emphasis on God’s fatherhood over all humanity as the avenue to real solutions for issues faced by the poor and disenfranchised. Some of his most widely read books included The Thirteenth, Greatest of Centuries, The Catholic Church and Healing, The World’s Debt to the Catholic Church, What Civilization Owes to Italy, and Catholic Churchmen in Science. A century-old copy of his Churchmen is displayed proudly in the Prep Library.
In his chapter on Walsh’s early years at Fordham, Schroth points out an article that a college-aged James published in the October 1883 Fordham Monthly. In response to an editorial in the New York Herald criticizing the Church for not keeping up the progress of the day, Walsh writes: “Mankind has matured in many ways in these past few years, but unfortunately, instead of maturing in virtue, it has taken a downward course…We find murders, robberies, suicides and immorality ever on the increase…The very name of Scientist has become almost synonymous with Atheist…and so many of our wealthy merchants and tradesmen acknowledge no God but Mammon” — words that capture the essence of James Walsh’s lifelong crusade, and words that say as much in the 21st century as they did in the 19th.
James J. Walsh, Knight of St. Gregory, Knight of Malta, MD, PhD, ScD, LittD, LLD, PeD and true son of Fordham passed away on February 28, 1942.