David Gapp
This may be as much a lesson about reach and curiosity as it is about history.

A couple of years ago, when David Gapp and his huskie, Onslow, were out for their regular stroll behind their house not far from campus, Onslow stopped for a good long slurp from the creek. Bored, Gapp began to poke around in a nearby pile of glass that had been dumped over decades. He spotted a brown bottle, half buried, and pulled it out. It was in great shape, clearly old, and bore the inscription Duffy’s Pure Malt Whiskey. Gapp, the Silas D. Childs Professor of Biology, went home with his find and started searching the web. Scanning through various pages, the words Hamilton College jumped out.

“I figured, oh well, maybe the boys back then were drinking a lot of Duffy’s Pure Malt Whiskey and had gotten into trouble,” Gapp speculated. He wasn’t even close. The artifact he’d come upon would lead him to Samuel Hopkins Adams, Class of 1891, a journalist whose work was a catalyst for the country’s first Pure Food and Drug Act.

A crusader, Adams took on the unregulated patent medicine industry in a series of articles for Collier’s Weekly called “The Great American Fraud,” the first of which was published in 1905. Duffy’s Pure Malt Whiskey, made in Rochester, N.Y., was sold as a patent medicine, and Duffy’s was one of the concoctions Adams called out in Collier’s. The American Medical Association later published the influential series as a collection. Adams, along with writer Upton Sinclair, social reformer Florence Kelley and Harvey Wiley, chief chemist with the federal Department of Agriculture, was generally credited with getting the Pure Food and Drug Act passed in 1906.

But there was more to this muckraking journalist — he was also a prolific writer whose work covered a kaleidoscopic range of subjects and genres. He wrote fiction, nonfiction and short stories. He wrote about medicine and public health. He wrote detective stories and mysteries, children’s books, biographies, memoirs, romance novels and novels about politics, journalism and history. Adams penned novels under the pseudonym Warner Fabian that were, for the time, quite sexual.

His short stories ran in magazines as varied as Woman’s Day and The New Yorker. One of them, “Night Bus,” was made into the 1934 movie It Happened One Night, a comedy starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert and directed by Frank Capra. Adams’s obituary in the Hamilton Alumni Review noted that 17 of his works were made into motion pictures. His novel Tenderloin, about a red-light district of Manhattan, was published posthumously and made into a Broadway musical in 1960.

Adams, the nonscientist, was said to have been “the first to write on medical science for the layman,” according to his obituary in The New York Times. Adams wasn’t a physician, but the American Medical Association made him an associate member in 1913.

As busy as Adams was during his career, he made time for his alma mater. He served as a trustee from 1905 to 1916. Adams’ biographer, Samuel V. Kennedy III, attended a memorial service for Adams upon his death in 1958 that concluded with Hamiltonians singing “Carissima.”

The College has a fair amount of Adams’ papers and other materials in the Burke Library, Gapp says, and he’s had fun looking through them. He gave a talk about Adams and the uncovered bottle at a community luncheon on campus in January. There’s more Gapp would like to learn about the man, “but I’m not going to make a career of it,” he says. He has other subjects to explore. Like Adams, Gapp is a man of wide-ranging interests, from Food for Thought: The Science, Culture and Politics of Food, a course he co-teaches, to his study of the comparative endocrinology of reptiles. As a scientist, he’s always made an effort to put science in its historical context. He’s gone on “history jags” with his students and has no qualms about following intellectual tangents.

“We’re in a liberal arts environment here. Why should I keep blinders on?” he says. “I think a lot of the fun of all this is making the connections — how are all these things wrapped up? Stuff isn’t done in isolation. It’s part of the culture of the times, and sometimes to understand some of the things, it helps to understand the historical context.”

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