Was Louis D. Brandeis a University of Louisville Alumnus?

07Sep12

While rummaging through the Brandeis collection a couple years ago, I stumbled upon a February 28, 1936 letter from Joseph McClain, who was then the University of Louisville’s dean of the law school. The letter referenced an earlier letter from Brandeis that, as McClain put it, acted as “primary evidence of the fact that Mr. Justice Brandeis did have a relation, as a student, to the University of Louisville.” The existence of such a letter was news to me. I had never seen it in our collection of Brandeis’ papers and it was not published in Urofsky and Levy’s collection of Brandeis’ letters.

The story of Brandeis’ education has always been that he attended Male High School here in Louisville, but then finished his high school education at an academy in Germany, before attending law school at Harvard. His name is inextricably linked with University of Louisville because of the interest he took in the school during the 1920’s and 30’s. In an effort to build up the University, he donated his library and papers and was instrumental in raising money for a new law school building. After he died, his ashes were interred under the building’s portico. In honor of all of Brandeis’ contributions, the law school changed its name in 1997 to the Louis D. Brandeis School of Law.

The students and alumni are proud of the school’s connection with Brandeis, but I felt that it would be even more exciting for them if I could prove that Brandeis was in some way an alumnus of the University. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the letter. I looked in all of the places in our collection where I thought it could be. McClain’s letter stated that he was sending Brandeis’ letter to the University president’s office for safe keeping. I contacted the office but they couldn’t find it. A similar search with the University Archives also came up empty. Eventually, I stopped looking for it and was left with the hope that maybe one day it would just fall into my lap.

Which is exactly what happened yesterday. As happens so often, I was looking for something else in the collection when I happened to stumbled onto the “lost” letter. (Of course, I was unable to find the letter I was actually looking for. No doubt it will turn up a year from now while I am looking for something else.) Fortunately, given the inscrutability of Brandeis’ handwriting, there was also a transcription of the letter.

February 22, 1936 letter from Louis D. Brandeis to Robert Miller
The relevant part of the letter reads:

My connection with the University was a constructive one. – Actually I was a student of the Male High School (from the Winter of ’70-’71 to June ’72.) But, at that time, there was a five year course – at the end of the third year an intermediate certificate was given under the University’s name in some way. The degree would have come at the end of the fifth year.

So, it is clear that Brandeis considered himself to be an alumnus of sorts. But the letter leaves a big question: What exactly was the nature of the relationship between Male High School and the University of Louisville? As it turns out, the answer is a bit complicated.

To figure it all out, I consulted the book The First Hundred Years–The Story of Louisville Male High School by Sam Adkins and M. R. Holtzman. (Oddly, there is no publisher or publication date listed in the book.) The University of Louisville was officially chartered by the state of Kentucky in 1846. Primarily just a medical and law school, it absorbed the pre-exisitng Louisville College, which it made its “academical department” (which apparently the equivalent of junior college.) The University built a new building for its law school which it put next to its medical school. The city of Louisville made a power grab around this time however, first taking over the academical department, and then forcibly housing the department in the new law school building. (This forced the law school to scramble into the first of many improvised and temporary settings. This situation lasted until the 1930’s when, as already mentioned, Brandeis helped get a permanent home built.) In 1856, the academical department was formally transformed into Louisville Male High School. However, despite its name, it was still more of a junior college and it was still run by the University. Even after 1861, when the school gained its independence from the University, it was still housed on campus. Also confusing matters is the fact that for a while the school changed its name to the “University of the Public Schools of Louisville.”

So, it would appear that there is no clear answer to the question. Brandeis attended the school a full 10 years after Male was disassociated from the University. Maybe Brandeis attended there while it was called the “University of the Public Schools of Louisville” and confused the names of the two institutions. Or maybe some of the classes of the high school were actually taught at the medical or the law school. At this late date, it is probably impossible to know for sure. At any rate, Brandeis thought of himself as an alumnus of the school and that is probably good enough for the University.

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