"Biography"-ing Thomas:
Some chapters in the life of
William  Isaac Thomas 

Robert Throop & Lloyd Gordon Ward

A little over four years ago, we noticed that the Mead Project's document inventory had lost its focus. It was time to weave together the scattered documents into more coherent sets.

 We wanted to start with something small and settled on a short biography of William Isaac Thomas. We had collected together most of Thomas's published work, and were familiar with the existing commentaries. It seemed like an easy place to start. Four years later, we have come to two conclusions about this phase of the Project: a) we should have chosen an easier place to start and b) there was probably no better place to start the weaving process than with Thomas.

A biography of Thomas poses two (possibly related) problems. First, Thomas didn't want one written, not by himself and certainly not by anyone else. Second, the stories preserved in the commentaries by others are "seriously flawed," as are Thomas's few autobiographical statements. They are so untrustworthy that would-be biographers find themselves testing details at every turn. Seemingly simple statements can lead to months in newspaper morgues and institutional archives, days spent in foreign cities, chasing phantoms down blind alleys.

 The First Problem

Thomas documented his feelings about biography in a brief exchange with Kimball Young during the Spring of 1930. Young had written to ask for his mentor's assistance in a project that never saw print:

You have done very many favors for me in the past. I am asking you to do one of the most tedious ones of all. As you know Reuter is editing a book of contemporary sociologists and has asked me to write the chapter on W. I. Thomas. I want a short section on you to precede my discussion of your contribution to sociology. I know a good deal about you but not enough. Will you run through the enclosed questions, indicating dates and noting other matters asked for? In many cases you can answer the material very briefly [hand written insertion: by putting circles around appropriate phrases and words]. By following the numbers you could make brief notations on the reverse side of the sheets of most of the other questions. If some of these questions seem a little too intimate, I shall not include the answers as part of my material.1

Thomas's responded quickly and curtly. He began by assailing Young's approach,  his motives and his ethics:

I strongly advise you to do nothing of the kind. Your proposal is essentially journalistic. There is such a tendency in vogue. I denounced it in the last meeting of the Social Science Research Council, and opposed giving money to people of that kind. Somewhere there is an idea of making a popular or sensational book behind your scheme. There is a publisherís success or a writerís royalties involved — so it seems.

* * *

I was news at one time and could have sold the data you require to Chicago papers for enough to keep me going a year.


What you want is exactly what a newspaper reporter wants. All those items about my private life could not come from anybody but me. I would participate in making an intimate picture of myself. Nice, that? There is also a matter of taste in another direction. Men in intimate relations gossip and make remarks and disclosures, knowing that it is an intimate group. But they donít expect any member to publish it. You may have picked up things about my house that I would not have said to a reporter. You known darned well how much I had to do with "Old World Traits Transplanted," but do you expect me to tell you for publication? The men concerned there were my friends, and acted friendly. I needed the money. Yes, you wrote your life to me, but have I published it? Do you want me to publish it?2

He included a brief evaluation of his career before closing with a barely polite rebuff:

I have no doubt your feeling toward me is most friendly and you probably wish also to represent me as important. I donít regard myself as important. I donít want to be noticed. I donít care whether a word appears about me in print living or dead. I donít go out of my way to read the reviews of what I write. I have no grievances. I donít reflect on the past. Getting thrown out of the University turned out the most beneficial thing that ever happened to me, according to my ideas, but I am not bragging about it and you have not my permission to mention it. Being president of the sociological society was probably an amiable mistake. Some men made some gestures, and I did not resist.

* * *

If I wanted to write a life-history I would write it myself and give it the context. I have not forgotten the generous treatment by yourself and Barnes in the Sociological Review and elsewhere, but without being ungracious your present proposition makes you one of my problems.2

As far as we can determine, Young abided by Thomas's wishes and abandoned the project for several years.3  Fifteen years after Thomas's death, Sociology and Social Research serialized Young's lengthy discussion of Thomas's work, liberally seasoned with biographical notes (Young 1962). That year, the National Cyclopaedia of American Biography published an entry for Thomas (National Cyclopaedia of American Biography 1962). Although published anonymously, the note shared the unique "stage" structure that Young had employed in the SSR, suggesting that he prepared that material as well. Both works avoided the salacious details.

The Second Problem

Young waited fifteen years; forty-five more have past. As we write this note, we are a few weeks shy of the sixtieth anniversary of Thomas's death in the first week of December 1947. In that time, stories about Thomas have become part of sociological lore, a loosely related pastiche that should be familiar to classical scholars. There are stories about lowly origins in distant Appalachia and a vagabond youth. There are stories about the chance encounters with "powers-that-be," meetings that changed his life for the better. There is a story his most famous methodological contribution ó the personal document as a data source ó literally falling to his feet from above (the heavens?) in the form of a bag of garbage, a none-too-subtle variation on the classic "gift of the gods." There are the "desert years" when he struggled and suffered in solitude after "the powers" deprived of him of his rightful role, a period when even old friends connived to exploit the man's special abilities. There is the great ride, when the "young Turks" descended on the annual meeting of the American Sociological Society from all corners of the country to battle with "the old guard" and restore Thomas to his rightful place in the profession's pantheon. With or without those Valkieries, these stories form a recognizable hero-cycle that even Joseph Campbell could admire.

Since the 1960s, writers have used these tales to give immediacy or verisimilitude to their commentaries. They usually have left the tales unreferenced, occasionally mentioning unnamed  "reliable sources," only rarely crediting the details to some former student or colleague of Thomas's. Whether attributed to the writers' credulity, lackadaisy, misplaced professional respect for their informants, or a careless disrespect for their readers, this practice is bad scholarship. Sadly, with the advent of the internet, those shoddy works have moved off dusty bookshelves and on to the desktop or laptop of students with only a passing flash of curiosity.

This situation places a biographer in an awkward position. A proper biography should ground itself in something more substantial than myth and rumor. Simply because the stories are widespread, the biographer has little choice but to juggle the two versions: to work from the documentary record and deal with the old stories. We suspect that was what Thomas had in mind when he told Young "Without being ungracious, your present proposition makes you one of my problems." By inference: In 1930, any detailed account of Thomas's life would have complicated it. How might that be true?

Because Young's list of questions has not been preserved with the letter, we don't know specifically what parts of his personal history Thomas considered problematic and we are not sure that it matters. Thomas's response mentioned two of the more obvious: his contribution to Old World Traits Transplanted and his dismissal from the University of Chicago. In 1930, no one had committed to print anything about Thomas's unacknowledged work on Old World Traits Transplanted (Park and Miller 1921).4 Commentators remained silent about the dismissal until three years after Thomas's death when Edmund Volkart mentioned it in the biographical note added to the Thomas reader prepared for the Social Science Research Council. By borrowing his wording from contemporary newspaper accounts, Volkart managed to perpetuate certain errors that complicated commentaries on Thomas's life for the next fifty years (cf., Volkart 1951: 323, New York Times 1918). Although these were important moments in Thomas's career, they clearly were not the only ones Young asked about: "By following the numbers you could make brief notations on the reverse side of the sheets of most of the other questions (emphasis added). Young's questions spanned multiple pages. Therein lies the problem. Thomas adamantly opposed the detailing of any part of his life.

 Actually, Thomas left behind several autobiographical notes:  his routine entries for one or another of the Marquis Co. directories of prominent Americans (cf. Thomas 1908, 1911, 1912, 1924, 1926, 1930, 1934) as well as his subsequently published statement to the December 1938 special meeting of the Social Science Research Council's Committee on Research Evaluation (Thomas 1939). There were also the two unpublished statements he prepared for Bernard in 1928 (one of which is, at present, missing), and the as-yet-unpublished 1935 memorandum prepared for Dorothy Thomas about The Polish Peasant (cf., Thomas 1928/1973; fragments from the 1935 memorandum were published in Bulmer 1984:47-49). As we document in the pages below, none are particularly detailed or entirely trustworthy.

For unknown reasons, from early in his career, Thomas salted his biographical comments with "wee porkies." Whether viewed as conceits or deceits, his hijinx reach a zenith of sorts in the 1924 edition of Who's Who In America wherein Thomas updated his entry to include the publication of The Unadjusted Girl (Thomas 1923), and to change his mailing address to The University of Chicago where he informed readers that he was still a faculty member. With the exception of a brief vacation in Chicago during 1922, Thomas had lived in New York City since the autumn following his dismissal from the University of Chicago in 1918.

Such scraps of "information" seem to have no other purpose than frustrating future commentators on his life and work. From a less paranoid perspective, the stories can be viewed as tales told by a man unsure of his place in the world creating one for his audience. However fanciful the stories may be, we have tried to integrate them into our commentaries. Each provides a perspective on "Thomas's Thomas," the persona he wanted others to know.

As historiographical standards have improved within the behavioral sciences, the challenges of teasing the truth from the tales has surfaced on several occasions. The earliest example that we know of was preserved by James Bennett's chronicle of oral histories as a research tool in criminology. He began his chapter on Thomas by sharing with a strange exchange with one of his informants. Concerned by discrepancies between two versions of the origin of Thomas's use of personal correspondence in The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, one prepared by Thomas and published in 1977 (Thomas 1928/1973), the other reported in Morris Janowitz's "Introduction" to W. I Thomas on Social Organization and Social Personality (Janowitz 1966:xxiv), Bennett wrote to one of the few surviving "Chicago" sociologists who has routinely been treated as a "reliable source"  on the period: Everett Hughes. This is what Hughes had to say: "Thomas was a great raconteur. He loved telling stories about himself as well as about others. He didn't tell them always the same way" (E. C. Hughes quoted in Bennett 1981: 123).

We don't know if Bennett found Hughes response as disturbing as we did, but  consider what Hughes said: a) stories told by Thomas were known to be internally inconsistent, and b) people who were aware that the stories were inconsistent repeated them. Put more bluntly, Thomas lied and his audience knew he lied. To make matters worse, the vast bulk of what has appeared in print about Thomas is based on those lies. Bennett's particular problem — the discrepancies between two accounts of The Polish Peasant ó was a good case in point. Janowitz was familiar with both versions of the story; he chose to reproduce the more preposterous of the two. That would suggest what amounts to a micro-culture of mendacity surrounding Thomas and his contributions to "Chicago Sociology."

 Harold Orbach confronted the same problem during his research on The Polish Peasant. In a rarely referenced 1993 paper about Florian Znaniecki, Orbach clearly stated his opinion about the existing Thomas literature by venting his frustrations :

In place of any careful attempt to reconstruct the historical record through the use of official records and scrutiny of the few written documents that have surfaced over the years, a great deal of sociological history is constructed with apocryphal stories and retrospective accounts, both oral and written, that are produced without recourse to official records and contemporaneous documents. Often, when recourse is made to newspaper accounts stories are taken at face value despite the sociological knowledge of the distortions of information that arise out of the communication process, particularly that associated with "yellow journalism." Documents, whether retrospective or contemporaneous, are accepted as "evidence" rather than as "data" to be evaluated and cross-checked against other sources, in spite of our knowledge of the "distortion" and "selective recall" of events in the distant past, of our "reconstruction of the past" in the context of present concerns, and above all the conscious creation of false records, "forgeries" such as letters, diaries and similar devices. The issue of the motive behind accounts that make some individuals "look good" and others bad and most importantly the source and prevenance of documents and accounts is virtually ignored (Orbach 1993: 144-145).

Especially during the earliest phases of the archival work, we shared Orbach's sense of outrage.

Such strong emotion can last only as long as researchers feel impotent in the face of conflicting accounts. Everybody lies. That doesn't mean that conflicting accounts can't be resolved. People do it everyday.

Thomas was wrong when he told Young that "All those items about my private life could not come from anybody but me." Unless he was talking about the hours he spent alone in an otherwise empty apartment, that sounds true but it isn't. Since the end of the nineteenth century, our world hasn't been organized to permit that kind of privacy. Each of us is surrounded by the detritus of daily living, a constantly accumulating pile of information about how we spent the day, the month, the year. And a lot of that information has become much easier for historians, both professional and amateur, to access in the last decade.

  And that brings us to the second point from the first paragraph. Like many other commentators on the history of the behavioral sciences, we thought we could write about our subject without any training in the techniques of historical research.  In retrospect, the hubris in that self-deception is embarrassing. Orbach's complaint gave a fairly good synopsis of wha's has been involved in work on Thomas's biography. The fact that the "informants" have been dead for decades, doesn't relieve a researcher of the responsibility of looking for confirming (or falsifying) evidence.5   Nothing will familiarize the amateur with the tools of the historian's trade more quickly than testing the perimeter of a lie. Whatever skills we have as amateur historians, we developed while working on Thomas's biography. 


With a little imagination, a little patience and a lot of luck, we have satisfied ourselves with solutions to most of the "mysteries" that plagued the first years of the work. We credit that to hand-holding by trained historians who laughed off our "storms" and gave direction to our struggle. We owe an enormous debt to guidance from Prof. Evan Thomas, whose unpublished dissertation on Thomas's work remains the best commentary on W. I. Thomas's work we have yet read (Thomas 1987). We should also thank Stephen O. Murray, Richard Lee Smith, and Mary Jo Deegan whose published works pointed us in the direction of rich sources of information about Thomas and the context of his life and work (cf. Murray 1980, Smith 1977 and Deegan 1988).6 

We cannot overstate the importance of good luck, especially what Miss Dubois referred to as "the kindness of strangers." We have no doubt the responsibilities of the guardians of institutional archives demand that they be more obstructionist than  necessary. In our limited experience, two exceptions stand out: James Quigel of Pennsylvania State University and Carmen Hendershott of the New School for Social Research. Both interrupted busy schedules to assist our research, going beyond "cooperative" into the rarified realm of "collaborative." Among his other responsibilities, Quigel is the custodian of two important resources: the L. L. Bernard Papers and the archives of the American Sociological Association. Beyond her assistance in documenting Thomas's work for the New School, we credit to Hendershott our sense of what constitutes "a thorough search" as an invaluable life-lesson: when time is not an issue, "problems" are just "puzzles." We regretfully admit that limited resources have sometimes made time an issue, thus we have not always lived up to her standard.

A more pedestrian kind of luck comes into play when using the World Wide Web. About two years ago, we had given up all hope of finding the most important detail in any account of Thomas's dismissal: the Department of Justice's legal rational for detaining Thomas in 1918, the event that led to his dismissal from the University of Chicago. While finalizing the footnotes for a version of the larger story we intended to submit to the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, we thought of a new search string to submit to Google. Unlike previous searches, all of which had turned up thousands of useless documents, this one returned only four. Two of them offered us nothing. One led to an article in the Journal of Libertarian Studies; the other to the typescript of a just-published history of California's Ninth Circuit Court  left by its author in a public space of his academic account, and dutifully indexed by Google's webcrawler. Both sources described the law we were looking for and led us on a year-long exploration of one of those "car crash" moments in American history, an ugly but entirely fascinating period that we knew nothing about but which is deeply entangled with Thomas's biography.

That story brings us back to Thomas's letter to Young and his comment that "If I wanted to write a life-history I would write it myself and give it the context." These pages do not pussy-foot around the more scandalous aspects of Thomas's biography. There are many such moments, and only occasionally was he at their center. Those contexts are essential to understanding Thomas's life and work. Several of the essays listed below deal with people and events related to Thomas, but not about Thomas.

Finally, these pages do not constitute a complete biography. We have made no real effort to cover the years after the release of The Child in America (Thomas and Thomas 1928), and deal with his last published work, Primitive Behavior (Thomas 1937), only briefly. Frankly, we ran out of interest and patience. So, in outline, here are the pages that will appear over the next few months.

 Pages About Thomas

The Education of W.I. Thomas 

This page will provide an overview of Thomas's life and career through the completion of his 1896 doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago.

The Rise of W. I. Thomas: 1896-1909.

This page sketches Thomas's work and personal life in the years after the dissertation. It covers his two early publications, Sex and Society and Source Book for Social Origins, as well as his rise as a popular public lecturer.

The Fall of the Polish Peasant

This page documents the development of the Polish Peasant project between its initial funding in 1910 and the University of Chicago's withdrawal of the monograph in 1918.

Thomas and the Suffragists

This page explores the problems created by Thomas's speech at the National American Woman Suffrage Association convention in June 1915, an event linked to his dismissal in 1918 by Martin Bulmer. We situate the event within the crisis in the women's suffrage movement and the feminists' more general push for reproductive rights to provide a context for the difficulties Thomas encounter with the University of Chicago's President Judson (posted in November 2007).

The Thomas Scandal: 1918

Drawing on newspaper accounts and reminiscences of the period, this page provides a detailed account of the scandal as well as its impact on American public policy and Thomas's subsequent work.

Thomas in New York.

This page documents the completion of work on The Polish Peasant Thomas's involvement in the Carnegie Corporation's "Americanization Studies" especially his work on Old World Traits Transplanted, and his work on the The Unadjusted Girl. We explore his relationship with Ethel Dummer and her sustaining influence in Thomas's life.

The Rise of the Polish Peasant

This page covers the transformation of the Polish Peasant into a "sociological classic" as part of a concerted campaign by Thomas's former students to rehabilitate his reputation as a sociologist, culminating in Thomas election as president of the American Sociological Society.

Related Pages

We have also included some brief notes on topics related to Thomas's career.

A Beautiful and Impressive Southern Woman of Decidedly Individualistic Outlook:  Notes on the Life of Harriet Park Thomas

This page provides a brief biographical sketch of Harriet Park Thomas, the professor's first wife. Typically mentioned only to explain the Department of Justice's involvement in her husband's dismissal, Harriet Thomas had a decade long career in social reform prior to the scandal. The page pulls together newspaper clipping documenting that career.

Dr. Harper and the Sociologists

This page covers several curious aspects about the first years of Sociology at the University of Chicago and William Rainey Harper's role in the development of the Department and the selection of its graduate students.

Chicago Social Psychology: An overview of the first three decades, 1892-1923.

This page sketches a history of the first American graduate program in social psychology. Introduced into the Chicago curriculum by Albion Small, social psychology became one of the five graduate programs housed within Chicago's Department of Sociology and Anthropology in 1898 under the direction of W. I. Thomas.

The Culver Gifts

This page provides a brief overview of Helen Culver's generosity to the University of Chicago between 1895 and 1925. Thomas was primarily responsible for securing these endowments (posted in November 2007).

The Committee of Fifteen and the Vice Commission of the City of Chicago

Although technically a part of Thomas's biography, we have placed this essay outside of the main set because Thomas's was only a minor participant in the events it chronicles. The page documents the origin and work of the Vice Commission of the City between 1907 and 1911, and Thomas's contribution to it during 1910. A complex and rarely discussed period in Chicago's history, we cover with the Commission's roots in the Committee of Fifteen, an organization usually depicted as the successor of the Vice Commission.

Chicago and the Home Front War on Vice

This page picks up the work of the Committee of Fifteen after 1913, and documents the growth of its influence in what one historian referred to as the Purity campaign. During World War One, Thomas's colleagues from the Vice Commission succeeded in establishing a set of laws, putatively designed to protect the troops, but used to police alcohol and sexual behavior more broadly. Chicago became a test site for the social experiment. We cover the laws, and the legalistic maneuvering that led to Thomas's detention by the Department of Justice in 1918.

The Cattell Dismissal

Removed from Columbia University a few months prior to Thomas, this page explores the dismissal of James McKeen Cattell as a point of comparison for Thomas's dismissal (Posted in November 2007).

The Third Man: Herbert Adolphus Miller.

The page contains a brief biographical note on Herbert A Miller, focusing on his career as a social psychologist before and after the publication of Old World Traits Transplanted. Often referred to as a "junior" member of the team, the note documents his role in the development and early execution of the research published under his name along with that of Robert Park.


1. Kimball Young to W. I. Thomas, 30 April 1930, Thomas Paper, Special Collection, Regenstein Library, University of Chicago.

2. W.I Thomas to Kimball Young, 4 May 1930, Thomas Papers, Special Collections, Regenstein Library, University of Chicago.

3. In 2007, WorldCat listed no book edited by E. B. Reuter that included an essay by Young about Thomas. Either all editions had disappeared from the WorldCat libraries or Reuter abandoned the Project. It is possible that Young was being disingenuous. In 1930, Young, E. B. Reuter, L.L. Bernard and several of Thomas's other students were preparing a festschrift for Thomas. Young may have been simply trying to keep the project a surprise. The book, Social Attitudes appeared in 1931 under Young's editorship, and absent any biographical note (Young 1931).

4. Floyd N. House would broached the subject of Thomas's authorship of Old World Traits Transplanted in a footnote to his chapter on The Polish Peasant in The Development of Sociology (House 1936: 284, note 1.)

5. Here we diverge slightly from Orbach. We would have used "testimony" not "data." And we would suggest that "testimony" demands even an even more exigent treatment along the lines Orbach sketched.

6. To this list should be added the small circle of unnamed historians and philosophers with whom we end our day at Toronto's Duke of Gloucester Public House.


Bennett, James.

Bulmer, Martin

Deegan, Mary Jo.

House, Floyd N.

Janowitz, Morris.

Murray, Stephen O.

National Cyclopaedia of American Biography.

New York Times

Orbach, Harold L.

Park, Robert E. & Miller, Herbert A.

Smith, Richard L.

Thomas, Evan A.

Thomas, William I.

Thomas, William I. & Thomas, Dorothy Swaine.

Volkart, Edmund

Young, Kimball

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2