Thomas was born in Russell County, an isolated region of old Virginia,on August 13, 1863. His father, Thadeus Peter Thomas, combinedpreaching in a Methodist church with farming. His son said thatthe social environment in which he grew up, twenty miles fromthe nearest railroad, resembled that of the eighteenth century.He felt that in his subsequent moves to a southern universitytown and later to the metropolitan cities of the Middle West andthe North he had lived "in three centuries, migrating graduallyto the higher cultural areas."

That this became possible, Thomas stated, was "due to someobscure decision on the part of my father to attend an institutionof learning--Emory and Henry College, Virginia." His father'sfather, Thomas's grandfather, was a stubborn Pennsylvania Dutchman,rich in land but with narrow peasant prejudices against culturalpursuits. He opposed his son's search for booklearning and punishedhim by sharply reducing his inheritance and forcing him to takeup farming in an undesirable geographical location and on poorand marginal soil.

Thomas's father, however, remained deeply attached to the ideaof learning. When he realized that his seven children had no adequateeducational opportunities in the provincial backwater where hewas making a poor living, he moved with his family to Knoxville,Tennessee, the seat of the state university.

Young Thomas spent his childhood and early adolescence with themountain people, sharing their passionate interest in shootingand hunting. "My zeal for this," he writes, "wasfanatical. I reckon that I passed no less than seven years ofmy youth in the woods alone with a rifle, without a dog, shootingat a mark, regretting the disappearance of large game and thepassing of the Indian and of pioneer life." There existsno record of the impact that the new urban environment of Knoxvillemust have made on the young mountain boy, but it would seem thathe managed the cultural transition without experiencing a majorshock. Having enrolled at the University of Tennessee in 1880and majoring in literature and the classics, Thomas soon becamea leader among the undergraduates, excelling not only scholasticallybut socially as the "big man on campus." He won honorsin oratory, became president of the most prestigious literarysociety, and at the same time captained the university's officertraining unit.

During his first two years at the University, Thomas's zest forlearning was less than conspicuous. But after that, under theinfluence of two teachers, Professors Alexander and Nicholson(the first a Greek scholar, the latter a devoted Darwinian whotaught zoology, geology, and other natural sciences), Thomas decidedto become a scholar. "I recall," he has written, "thaton a hot August day in the summer vacation, between the sophomoreand the junior year, I had a conversion. After some . . . profoundreflection I determined that I was to go in for scholarship."This decision taken, he immediately paid a visit to ProfessorAlexander and announced his life plan. He also recalls that soonafterward, impressed by German scholarship, he resolved to seekfurther enlightenment in German universities. (At the time, itwas generally assumed that German universities provided graduateinstruction vastly superior to what was available in America.Hence, young academics were motivated by values and attitudesto study in Germany.) When friends inquired about his future career,he replied: "I am going to Germany." But that time wasnot yet. After graduation he stayed on at the University as aninstructor, teaching Greek, Latin, German, French--most of them,as he later admitted, rather inadequately. Now carrying the honorifictitle of Adjunct Professor, he was also entrusted with instructionin natural history. The newfangled idea of specialization, itwould seem, had not yet reached the University of Tennessee.

Throughout this period, the eager and ambitious young instructornever abandoned the idea of going to Germany. He finally obtaineda leave of absence for a year's study and spent the academic year1888-89 at Berlin and Goettingen. This year was decisive in determininghis future intellectual orientation. It was in Germany that hisinterests changed from natural history and philology to ethnography,although this interest was not entirely new. Already at Tennesseereports of the Bureau of Ethnology had come to his attention.Moreover, as an adolescent he had roved over the Cumberlands andthe Smoky Mountains in search of game, and, as he noted in hisautobiographical sketch, he had later collected "a list ofabout 300 'Chaucerian' and 'Shakespearian' words surviving inthe speech of the mountaineers." These early interests ledhim in Germany to immerse himself in the writings of the Germanfolk psychologists Lazarus and Steinthal and to pay close attentionto Wilhelm Wundt's Voelkerpsychologie. At the same timehe attended courses in old English, old French, and old German,given by some of the leading German experts in these fields; healso continued his study of Greek culture under the great Germanclassicist Wilamowitz.

Returning from Germany, his cultural horizons having been decisivelybroadened, he resolved not to go back to the University of Tennessee,and instead accepted a professorship in English at Oberlin. Thiswas a traditional subject, to be sure, but Thomas taught it mainlywithin a comparative framework. His concern with ethnography alsoled him to a careful perusal of Herbert Spencer's Principles ofSociology and to further comparative studies suggested by Spencer.His three years at Oberlin were among the most satisfactory ofhis life. "I was not at that time sufficiently irreligious,"he noted later, "to be completely out of place, and yet asufficient innovation to be a novelty."

Nevertheless, when the news reached him of the opening of thefirst American Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago,he gave up what looked like an established career at Oberlin tobecome a graduate student at Chicago. Though attracted by thedepartment's offerings in sociology and anthropology, Thomas tookrelatively few formal courses in the department doing most ofhis work in courses marginal to sociology, including biology,physiology, and brain anatomy. Although he paid but scarce attentionto his directors of study, Albion Small and Charles Henderson,and seemed more inclined to explore the city of Chicago than thedepartmental library, Thomas must clearly have impressed his mentors.After only one year in residence he was invited to offer his firstcourse in sociology in the summer of 1894. In 1895 he served asan instructor, and in the following year, having completed hisdoctoral work (his thesis was entitled "On a Difference inthe Metabolism of the Sexes"), he became an assistant professor.In 1900 he was promoted to associate professor, and in 1910, havingby this time assumed a prominent position in the department, hebecame a full professor.

While Albion Small's teaching focused on theoretical issues andhistorical data, and Charles Henderson's on social problems andtheir remedies, Thomas's interest was mainly in ethnographic andcomparative studies. At that time the Chicago Department was ajoint department of sociology and anthropology, and Thomas offeredcourses in what today would be called cultural and physical anthropology.In line with this orientation he returned to Europe immediatelyafter receiving his doctoral degree to visit a variety of culturalsettings. He travelled as far as the Volga, preparing to writea comparative study of European nationalities. This project wasshelved, but he returned to it around 1909 when he revisited Europe"for the purpose of studying peasant backgrounds with referenceto the problem of immigration."

In 1908, Helen Culver, heiress of the founder of Hull House, offeredThomas $50,000 to study problems of immigration. For the nextten years he directed the Helen Culver Fund for Race Psychology,which enabled him to finance the studies that eventually led tothe publication of The Polish Peasant. Without this generousendowment it is unlikely that the work would ever have been published.It enabled Thomas to make a number of trips to Poland in searchof pertinent materials and also covered other research expenses.

Thomas had originally planned to study a variety of Eastern Europeanimmigrant groups, but he gave this up as being too ambitious anundertaking. He focused instead on the Poles, the largest andmost visible ethnic group in Chicago, who seemed to be beset bya number of social problems, from family disorganization to crime.It is also likely that this son of a southern rural minister hadsome special sympathy for the uprooted sons and daughters of Polishvillagers struggling to find a foothold in the urban jungles ofmetropolitan Chicago.

After deciding to concentrate his study on the Polish community,Thomas, befitting his ethnographical training and following establishedprocedures among anthropologists, mastered the Polish language.He then set out to develop extensive contacts with the Polishcommunity in Chicago, as well as to take field trips to Poland.At that point, Thomas still used methods that had been developedin studies of nonliterate peoples and did not yet think of gatheringwritten information.

One rainy morning, while walking down the back alley behind hishouse, Thomas had to side-step to avoid a bag of garbage whichsomeone was throwing from a window. As the bag burst open at hisfeet, a long letter fell out. He picked it up, took it home, anddiscovered that it was written in Polish by a girl taking a trainingcourse in a hospital. It was addressed to her father and mainlydiscussed family affairs and discords. It then occurred to Thomasthat one could learn a great deal from such letters. This wasthe unlikely accident that led to Thomas's development of thelife-history method for which he has since become famous. Letno one be tempted to interpret the incident as confirmation ofthe "accidental theory of history." It took a very peculiarkind of man with very special gifts and training to pay attentionto a bag of garbage thrown at his feet.

For more than a decade after this incident, Thomas moved backand forth between the Chicago Polish community and communitiesin the old country to gather written materials to supplement oralinformation. The 2,244 pages of the final work are largely givento the reproduction of these materials. Thomas used 754 lettersacquired through an advertisement in a Chicago Polish-languagejournal, apparently offering 10 to 20 cents for any letter receivedfrom Poland. He used some 8,000 documents bought from the archivesof a Polish newspaper that he approached during a visit to thatcountry in 1909-10. He also used data and documents from Polishparish histories in Chicago, from immigrant organizations, fromthe files of charitable and legal aid associations, and from diariesof Polish immigrants (for which he paid the authors).

During his trip to Poland in 1913, Thomas met the Director ofthe Polish Emigrants Protective Association, Florian Znaniecki,a young philosopher who was not allowed to teach in Russian-dominatedPoland because of his commitment to the idea of Polish nationalism.Znaniecki proved to have a wide knowledge of Polish peasant life--ararity among members of Poland's gentry intelligentsia. The materialshe collected for Thomas from the archives of the Polish EmigrantsProtective Association proved invaluable. A year later, when WorldWar I broke out and Germany invaded Poland, Znaniecki left hishome country and went to see Thomas at Chicago. It is not entirelyclear whether Thomas had formally invited him or not, but theimportant fact is that Thomas asked him immediately to join hisproject as a research worker. Soon thereafter Znaniecki becamehis co-author, working closely together with him until the completionof the monumental work.

During the many years of preparation for the book, Thomas andhis wife Harriet Park, whom he had married in 1888, actively participatedin the social and intellectual life of Chicago. They had closeconnections with various social work agencies and were identifiedwith many of the social-reform activities described in earlierchapters of this book. At times, Thomas's "advanced views"on such social problems as crime and delinquency did not suitthe established powers. The Chicago Vice Commission, for example,which was set up by well-meaning but timid establishmentariansouls, seemed to recoil in horror at some of the "progressive"suggestions of Thomas, who had done considerable research workfor the Commission's use. Not only Thomas's views, but also hislife-style offended some of the bien pensants. Hecertainly did not conform to the image, prevalent at the timeof a staid and withdrawn academic. He dressed well, enjoyed thecompany of attractive women, mixed in bohemian quarters, and dinedin posh restaurants as well as local dives. He was, as they say,a controversial figure. His unfashionable ideas and flamboyantlife-style made him attractive to students but also aroused agood deal of animosity, even enmity, among the more settled denizensof the faculty club and administration building.

In 1918, those who had been secretly gunning for him finally hadan occasion to move in for the kill. The Chicago Tribune,which had long been perturbed by the "unsound ideas"of professors at the University, announced one day in big headlinesthat Thomas had been arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.The charges? Alleged violation of the Mann Act (which forbadethe transport of young women across state lines for "immoralpurposes") and false hotel registration. These charges werelater thrown out of court, but in the meantime the publicity hadbeen extensive, especially since the lady with whom he was involved,one Mrs. Granger, reported that she was the wife of an army officerthen serving with the American forces in France. Why the F.B.I.got involved in this case is unclear, but it has been suggestedthat Thomas's wife was under surveillance for her pacifist activitiesand that the F.B.I. might have thought it expedient to discreditthe husband so as to humiliate the wife. While such an interpretationmight have seemed farfetched a few years ago, it does not seemso now.

What followed constitutes one of the shameful chapters in thehistory of American universities. The president of the Universityof Chicago, Henry Pratt Judson, supported by the trustees, movedimmediately to dismiss Thomas. Albion Small, the chairman of hisdepartment, offered no public defense, although he made some privatemoves to protect Thomas and wept in his office over the loss ofhis prize student and colleague. There was no faculty protestand hardly a voice was raised from the ranks of Thomas's immediatecolleagues. Everett Hughes writes me that this could not havehappened at Harvard. No Boston paper would have mentioned an incidentinvolving a Harvard professor. "Chicago was too parvenu tocontrol the papers." (Personal communication, April 12, I976.)

Thomas's career was shattered at the age of 55, and he never againwas given a permanent position at any university. The Universityof Chicago Press, which had issued the first two volumes of ThePolish Peasant, broke its contract with the authorsand refused to publish the succeeding volumes (which were laterissued by an obscure house, Richard G. Badger of Boston). Despitehis twenty years' services, the University of Chicago and itsminions did everything possible to drop his name into an Orwellianmemory hole. Even the University of Chicago archives contain nothingto remind one of Thomas, except for a few administrative letters.

The Carnegie Foundation behaved just as badly. It had earliercommissioned Thomas to write a volume in their AmericanizationStudies series. When, after the unfortunate incident, the manuscript,Old World Traits Transplanted, was delivered, theFoundation insisted that Thomas's name not appear as the author;the book was published under the names of Robert E. Park and H.A. Miller, who had done some minor work on the volume. Only inthat way could the reputation of the Foundation and of the socialsciences be protected. A recommendation for Thomas's appointmentto the staff was vetoed by the directors. It was a famous victoryfor the philistines.

After the Chicago disaster Thomas moved to New York. He lecturedfor a number of years at the New School for Social Research, thena haven for such unconventional scholars as Thorstein Veblen,Charles Beard, and Harold Laski, but at that time it was nonethelessa marginal academic institution. In 1936-37 Pitirim Sorokin, onemaverick recognizing another, appointed him to a visiting lectureshipon the Harvard faculty, where he was lionized by the graduatestudents and instructors. This was his last academic position.

During the New York years, Thomas, despite his public hounding,nevertheless was able to do a good deal of research, much of itsponsored by Mrs. W. F. Dummer of Chicago, a wealthy woman philanthropistwho never faltered in her support of him. In later years he alsoreceived grants from the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial andthe Bureau of Social Hygiene. In the late thirties he served fora while as a staff member of the Social Science Research Counciland was closely associated with the Social Science Institute ofthe University of Stockholm.

Thus, even without a regular university appointment Thomas wasgiven the opportunity to continue his research. Yet the philistinesdid not relent easily. When some of the Young Turks of sociology,backed by Robert Park, argued in 1926 that it was high time thatThomas be offered the presidency of the American SociologicalSociety, leading sociologists, among them the ministerial CharlesA. Ellwood, argued that this would be inappropriate and wouldsully the honor of American sociology. When his name was enteredfor nomination, the "old guard" sought to find an appropriatecandidate to defeat him. Thomas considered withdrawing his nameunder these circumstances and was only persuaded to stay in therace by Ernest Burgess who assured him that the Young Turks, LouisWirth, George Lundberg, Stuart Chapin, Stuart Rice, Kimball Youngand others, would mobilize their younger colleagues on his behalf.They did, and he won by a wide margin.

Despite his trials and tribulations, Thomas, the dirt farmers'tough son from the Virginia hills, seems never to have been discouraged.His zest for life stood him in good stead. He managed to copewith whatever problem he tackled, in work or in private life.Earlier in his career, when he was dissatisfied with the finishon his dining table, he invented a better furniture polish. Later,disliking his inferior golf balls, he invented a better one--andenjoyed the proceeds of his patent. In 1935, after his first marriagehad broken up, the seventy-two-year-old man married his thirty-six-year-oldresearch associate Dorothy Swaine, who later became a leadingstudent of demography and the first woman president of the AmericanSociological Society. Nothing in his life, and a rocky life itwas, could defeat William I. Thomas. Even in his last years ofsemiretirement he continued his research in New Haven and Berkeley.He died at the age of 84 in December 1947.

From Coser, 1977:530-536.

Forward to the "The Work - Introduction"
Back to the Index