Clarence Cook Little, who advocated for eugenics and other racist public policies, was president of the University of Maine from April 1922 until August 1925, when he left to accept the presidency of the University of Michigan. Clarence Cook Little Hall, dedicated in 1965, is named in his honor. Courtesy photo

Clarence Cook Little was a visionary genetics researcher and university administrator in Maine and Michigan in the first half of the 20th century.

He also was outspoken on a host of controversial topics and a proponent of eugenics, which advocates for controlled human breeding and race isolation. He opposed interracial marriage, sought to restrict immigration and was a spokesman for the tobacco industry as it resisted claims that linked smoking and cancer.

On Thursday, officials at the University of Michigan, where Little was president from 1925 to 1929, voted to remove Little’s name from a science building on campus because of his questionable legacy.

But the University of Maine, where Little was president before his tenure in Michigan, has no plans to do the same for a lecture hall on the Orono campus that has borne his name since 1965, six years before his death.

UMaine spokeswoman Margaret Nagle said Friday that administrators are aware of the University of Michigan’s decision, but said no concerns about Little have been brought forward in Orono.

“The University of Maine is always open to discussion around community concerns, but at this point there has been no formal consideration of a name change,” she said in an email.

FOUNDER OF JACKSON LAB

One-time UMaine president Clarence Cook Little’s name has been removed from a building at the University of Michigan, where he was president after leaving Orono in 1925. Photo from UMaine website with permission

Little, a Brookline, Massachusetts, native and Harvard University graduate, served as UMaine’s president from 1922 to 1925 and later founded The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, which has grown into a world-renowned genetic research facility.

During his three years at UMaine – he was the nation’s youngest university president at the time – Little was credited for growing the school, and he secured funding to build a big lecture hall and the Memorial Gym and Field House. He also created UMaine’s “Freshman Week,” a then-uncommon practice of orientation for first-year students that is now standard at schools everywhere.

But he clashed often and publicly with then-Gov. Percival Baxter over repeated requests for state funding.

Little’s biography on the University of Maine’s website makes no mention of some aspects of his controversial past.

He left UMaine in 1925 to take the president’s job at the University of Michigan and returned to Maine after four years to establish what is now The Jackson Laboratory. It was an extension of genetics research he started in Bar Harbor in 1923 while at UMaine, but much of the early financial backing came from an auto industry executive from Michigan who summered on Mount Desert Island.

A spokesman for Jackson Lab said the company had no comment on the University of Michigan decision and considered it an “internal matter.”

In the 1950s, after his academic administrative career ended, Little served as a leading spokesman for the tobacco industry in contesting the idea that there was any relationship between smoking and cancer. He also was president of the American Eugenics Society.

Last year, the University of Michigan created a process to review the legacy of individuals named in or on university buildings. In addition to Little, the review committee recommended removing Alexander Winchell’s name from a residence hall. Winchell’s 1880 book, “Preadamites,” is considered racist and is cited today by white supremacists.

“The university community makes a significant commitment to an individual or family when it names a space after a person, and those who wish to change it carry a heavy burden,” University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel said in a statement. “In this case, I believe that heavy burden has been met.”

A QUESTIONABLE PAST

Schlissel said that Little’s “1920s campaign for eugenic measures while university president – immigration restriction, sterilization of the ‘unfit,’ anti-miscegenation laws – and the 1950s campaign sowing doubt about the links between smoking and cancer negatively affected the lives of millions.”

Many students and faculty members said it didn’t make sense to have a science building named for someone who was not only racist but who advocated scientifically false points.

There has been increased societal pressure in recent years to rename buildings that honor historical figures with questionable pasts. The debate over whether Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee should be commemorated has raged in parts of the South and prompted several communities to remove statues of him.

It may be that Little’s history is not well known at UMaine. The school’s history department used to have an expert on university history, David Smith, but he died in 2009.

Earle Shettleworth Jr., Maine’s most recent state historian, said he didn’t know much about Little either.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: PPHEricRussell

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.