Jordan was born in Gainesville, New York, and grew up on a farm in upstate New York. His parents made the unorthodox decision to educate him at a local girls' high school. His middle name, Starr, does not appear in early census records, and was apparently self-selected; he had begun using it by the time that he was enrolled at Cornell. He said that it was in honor of his mother’s devotion to the minister Thomas Starr King.
He wrote his autobiography The Days of a Man, "During the three years which followed [my entrance as a "belated" freshman in March 1869], I completed all the requirements for a degree of Bachelor of Science, besides about two year of advanced work in Botany. Taking this last into consideration, the faculty conferred on me at graduation in June 1872, the advanced degree of Master of Science instead of the conventional Bachelor's Degree... it was afterward voted not to grant any second degree within a year after the Bachelor had been received. I was placed, quite innocently, in the position of being the only graduate of Cornell to merge two degrees into one."
His master's thesis was on the topic "The Wild Flowers of Wyoming County".
He wrote in his autobiography that while teaching at Indianapolis High School, "I was also able to spend some time in the Medical College, from which, in the spring of 1875, I received the (scarcely earned) degree of Doctor of Medicine, though it had not at all been my intention to enter that profession." Jordan taught comparative anatomy at the college the following year (1876). The Indiana Medical College in Indianapolis had opened in 1869 and closed its doors in 1878.
He was then accepted into the natural history faculty of Indiana University Bloomington as a professor of zoology in 1879. His teaching included his version of eugenics, which "sought to prevent the decay of the Anglo-Saxon/Nordic race by limiting racial mixing and by preventing the reproduction of those he deemed unfit."
Portrait of Susan Bowen Jordan in 1879
Jordan married Susan Bowen (1845-1885), a biologist and a graduate of Mount Holyoke College (whom he had met at Louis Agassiz’s Pekinese island Summer School of Science), in her hometown of Peru, Massachusetts on March 10, 1875. She died at age 39, after 10 years of marriage, following a brief illness. Bowen was six years Jordan’s senior.
They had three children: the educator Edith Monica (1877–1965), Harold Bowen (1882–1959), and Thora (1884–1886).
Jordan later married Jessie Knight (1866–1952) in 1887. At the time of their marriage, two years after his first wife’s death, Knight was 21 years old and Jordan was 36. They met while he was serving as president of Indiana University. He and his second wife had three additional children: Knight Starr (1888–1947), Barbara (1891–1900), and Eric Knight (1903–1926).
Indiana University presidency
In 1885, he was named president of Indiana University and became the nation's youngest university president at only 34 and the first Indiana University president who was not an ordained minister.
He improved the university's finances and public image, doubled its enrollment, and instituted an elective system; like Cornell's, it was an early application of the modern liberal arts curriculum.
In March 1891, he was approached by Leland and Jane Stanford, who offered him the presidency of Leland Stanford Junior University, which was about to open in California. Andrew White, the president of Cornell, had been offerred the position but instead recommended Jordan to the Stanfords based on an educational philosophy fit with the Stanfords' vision of a nonsectarian co-educational school with a liberal arts curriculum. Jordan quickly accepted the offer, arrived at Stanford in June 1891, and immediately set about recruiting faculty for the university's planned September opening. Pressed for time, he drew heavily on his own acquaintances; most of the 15 founding professors came either from Cornell or Indiana University. That first year at Stanford, Jordan was instrumental in establishing the university's Hopkins Marine Station. He served Stanford as president until 1913 and then chancellor until his retirement in 1916. The university decided not to renew his three-year-term as chancellor in 1916. As the years went on, Jordan became increasingly alienated from the university.
In 1899, Jordan delivered an essay at Stanford on behalf of racial segregation and racial purity. In the essay, Jordan claimed that "For a race of men or a herd of cattle are governed by the same laws of selection." Jordan expressed great fears and phobias for "race degeneration" that would result unless great endeavors were put forward to maintain "racial unity."
Eugenics-based argument against war
One of Jordan's main theses in the essay was that his goals for an ideal society are better engendered by peace than war. His argument against warfare contended that it is detrimental because it removes the strongest men from the gene pool. Jordan asserted, "Future war is impossible because the nations cannot afford it." As one commentator put it, "Though he found meager evidence to support his preconceptions, he still confidently asserted that 'always and everywhere, war means the reversal of natural selection.'"(p79)
Jordan was president of the World Peace Foundation from 1910 to 1914 and president of the World Peace Conference in 1915 and initially opposed American entry into World War I although he changed his position in 1917 after he became convinced that a German victory would threaten democracy.
Multiple publications of essay
Soon after it was first delivered, the essay was published by the American Unitarian Association (copyright 1902) under the main title of "The Blood of the Nation" and a subtitle of "A Study of the Decay of Races Through the Survival of the Unfit." Multiple editions of that version followed over the next few years.
An expanded version of the essay was delivered in Philadelphia at the 200th anniversary of Benjamin Franklin's birth in 1906 and printed by the American Philosophical Society. The following year, an expanded version of the original essay with an embossed cover was published by Beacon Press in Boston under the new main title "The Human Harvest" and the same subtitle. Thile new version was dedicated to Jordan's older brother Rufus, who had volunteered to fight in the American Civil War and, according to Jordan, was part of the "'Human Harvest' of 1862." However, Rufus was killed not as "cannon fodder" in fighting but by what would seem to be the "natural selection" of a disease (typhus) he was "unfit" to survive.
In 1910, the original and slimmer version of the essay was again published by the American Unitarian Association in a "present less expensive form to insure the widest possible distribution."
In 1915, Jordan published an "extended treatise on the same subject" titled War and Breed and again through the Beacon Press in Boston. Here Jordan defines and begins to employ the relatively recent term "eugenics" and its opposite "dysgenics."
Role in apparent coverup of murder of Jane Stanford
In 1905, Jordan launched an apparent coverup of the murder by poisoning of Jane Stanford. While vacationing in Oahu, Stanford had suddenly died of strychnine poisoning according to the local coroner’s jury. Jordan then sailed to Hawaii, hired a physician to investigate the case, and declared she had in fact died of heart failure, a condition whose symptoms bear no relationship to those that were actually observed. His motive for doing this has been a subject of speculation. One possibility is that he was simply acting to protect the reputation of the university since its finances were precarious, and a scandal might have damaged fundraising. He had written the president of Stanford's board of trustees, offered several alternate explanations for Mrs. Stanford's death, and suggested to select whichever would be most suitable. Since Mrs. Stanford had a difficult relationship with him and reportedly planned to remove him from his position at the university, he might have also had a personal motive to eliminate suspicions that might have swirled around an unsolved crime. Jordan's version of Mrs. Stanford's demise was largely accepted until the appearance of several publications in 2003 that emphasized the evidence that she was murdered.
Final years and legacy
In retirement, Jordan remained active, writing on ichthyology, world relations, peace, and his autobiography.
Lifetime honors and awards
1877 Honorary Ph.D. awarded by Butler University
1886 Honorary LL.D. awarded by Cornell University
1902 Honorary LL.D. awarded by Johns Hopkins University
1909 Honorary LL.D. awarded by Indiana University
Although a proponent of eugenics, Jordan was skeptical of certain other pseudoscientific claims. He coined the term "sciosophy" to describe the "systematized ignorance" of the pseudoscientist. His later work, The Higher Foolishness, inspired the philosopher Martin Gardner to write his treatise on scientific skepticism, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. However, Gardner noted that "the book is infuriating because although Jordan mentions the titles of dozens of crank works, from which he quotes extensively, he seldom tells you the names of the authors."
His son, Eric Knight Jordan (1903–1926), died at 22 in a traffic accident near Gilroy, California. Eric had participated in a paleontological expedition to the Revillagigedo Islands and was considering an academic career.
On September 19, 1931, Jordan died at his home on the Stanford campus after he had suffered a series of strokes over two years.
Monuments and memorials
The former Jordan Hall at Stanford University in May 2020 (now known as Building 420)
In July 2020, the president of the Sierra Club denounced Jordan and its other early leaders for being "vocal advocates for white supremacy and its pseudo-scientific arm, eugenics." The president also announced, "We will also spend the next year studying our history and determining which of our monuments need to be renamed or pulled down entirely." It is not yet clear on how their reassessment would affect the status of Mount Jordan, which the club had helped to name in 1926, or that of other geographic features that bear Jordan's name.
The David Starr Jordan "Namesake Tree" at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa Campus Arboretum, an Indian rubber tree (Ficus elastica) was given to Jordan at the outset of a trip to Japan, and planted by him on December 11, 1922, now listed as an Exceptional Tree of Hawai‘i.
Jordan was closely associated with Indiana University and Stanford University, and both schools named buildings and other campus features after him. However, as his reputation became more controversial in the 2000s, they acted to remove Jordan's name from their respective campuses.
Stanford honored its former president in 1917 by renaming its zoology building, built in 1899, to Jordan Hall. Other campus features were named Jordan Quad, Jordan Modulars, and Jordan Way. In October 2020 the Stanford Board of Trustees voted unanimously, on the recommendation of an advisory committee, to remove Jordan's name from from all four facilities. The former Jordan Hall was to be referred to as Building 420 until a permanent name could be selected sometime the following year. Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne was charged to rename Jordan Quad and Jordan Modulars. The advisory committee recommended that the renaming of Jordan Way, a street on the medical campus, "may take place during the course of ongoing construction and planning."
When Indiana University built a new building for its biology department in 1956, the building was named in honor of Jordan, its former president and biology faculty member. In October 2020 the Indiana University Board of Trustees voted overwhelmingly to remove Jordan's name from the biology building as well as a parking garage and a "river" (actually a small creek) that runs through the center of the campus. Jordan's name was stripped from these places immediately after the trustee meeting had concluded, and they were given temporary, generic names to be used until permanent names could be selected the following year. Jordan Hall, the Jordan River and the Jordan Avenue Parking Garage became respectively the Biology Building, the Campus River, and the East Parking Garage.
IU President Michael McRobbie requested the University Naming Committee to work with the city of Bloomington to find a name as a replacement for Jordan Avenue, a thoroughfare that is owned in part by IU and in part by the city. As of October 2020[update], there have been calls in the Bloomington City Council for Jordan Avenue to be renamed, but no such action has been taken so far. In April 2021, the Mayor of Bloomington created a seven-member task force to investigate possible replacement names for Jordan Avenue.
Starting in 1986, the David Starr Jordan Prize was funded as a joint endowment by Cornell University, Indiana University, and Stanford. Every three years it was awarded to a young scientist (under 40 years) who made contributions in one of Jordan’s interests of evolution, ecology, population or organismal biology. The prize was last awarded in 2015 to a biology professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
As Jordan's reputation became more controversial due to his support of eugenics, and particularly after the removal of Jordan's name from buildings on the campuses of Stanford and Indiana universities in 2020, there were calls to rename the prize. The prize was officially discontinued in 2020 and the endowment funds were returned to their respective universities.
^David Starr Jordan The Blood of the Nation: A Study of the Decay of Races through the Survival of the Unfit. (copyright 1902, reprinted 1910) p 12. The term "race" occurs more than 30 times in the short book. The term "eugenics" is not in there, but the basic concept is described.
^"To Dedicate New IU Biology Hall Friday". Palladium-Item. June 4, 1956. p. 1 – via Newspapers.com. The David Starr Jordan Hall of Biology, a $3,800,000 building to house natural science classrooms and laboratories, will be dedicated Friday afternoon on the Indiana University campus. The building is named for a 19th century Zoology professor who became president of the university.