The Archivist

Thomas Mendenhall’s Voyage to Japan

In 1868 the last shogun of Japan stepped down, restoring the emperor’s power over the island nation.

This event, known as the Meiji Restoration, sparked the rapid modernization of Japan. Foreigners were recruited from around the globe as government agents to assist with the transformation of society—among them was a brilliant scientist and educator from Ohio, Thomas Corwin Mendenhall (1841-1924).

Mendenhall was the first faculty member appointed at what is now The Ohio State University and was later awarded the school’s first honorary PhD in 1878. That same year, he was recruited by the Japanese government, accepting a position at the newly founded Tokyo Imperial University. In his diaries held in the WPI Archives, Mendenhall described his experiences and observations—including a cholera epidemic in 1879 during U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant’s state visit.

Upset over the cancellation of events and performances, Mendenhall wrote:

“… there was an epidemic of cholera in the country during the same summer; the government—well advised by competent sanitary authorities—was exceedingly strict in the enforcement of quarantine and sanitary regulations and in this way, doubtless, saved many thousands of lives.”

Mendenhall returned to the United States in 1881 and continued to make several important contributions to science. In 1894 he was selected as the third president of WPI. During his seven years on campus, academics continued to expand and flourish in conjunction with the growth of the campus, including the construction of Stratton Hall and the Power Plant.

—Arthur Carlson, assistant director of Archives & Special Collections at the
George C. Gordon Library

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