A sepia-toned phto of the Ubiquiteers, most holding a mug of beer

Social Studies

A "little League of Nations," the Ubiquiteers made friends out of strangers for four decades and established many traditions that survive today.

By Brian W. Simpson

James Shirley Sweeney waited for the right moment to pitch his idea. 

In the autumn of 1921, the 25-year-old physician from Waco, Texas, had seen what little time he and his fellow students had for social interaction. At the still-new Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, students were weighted down with demanding course work in bacteriology, physiological hygiene, statistics, and other disciplines. As a group, his fellow students must have seemed as diverse and exotic to him as their last names: Abadia. Fraga. Wroczynski. Ting. Hakim. Drbohlav. Lim… They came from a dozen countries in Asia, Central and South America, Western and Eastern Europe—an impressively international collection for a school just embarking on its fourth year of classes.

Sweeney realized how much he could learn from the other students. The typhus expert from Poland. The Filipino statistician. The Czech infectious disease specialist. The yellow fever researcher from Cheboygan, Mich. Another type of education, drawn from the library of human experience, awaited him outside the classroom. Sweeney had a vision of fostering "fellowship, mutually helpful contact, [and] development" among students. But how?

Revealing a penchant for drama, Sweeney announced his solution at a suitably auspicious occasion: a formal dinner held by the Rockefeller Foundation for its fellows at the School. William H. Howell, who would later become the School's second director, described the dinner at the Maryland Club as "an unusually fine one with handsome table decorations and a delightful menu." After coffee and cigars were served, Rockefeller Foundation President George Vincent, with "a gleam of wicked fun in his eyes," called on each member to give a short speech. Vincent knew the introverted scientists and those possessing a slippery grip on English would squirm at the prospect of public speaking. Some "halted and stammered and made a bad fist of it generally," Howell remembered in a 1927 yearbook. 

When it came his turn, Sweeney, who would earn his DrPH in 1924, proposed his idea to the group. Clean-shaven, handsome, and of average height, he didn't cut a particularly imposing figure. In a group picture from that era, Sweeney wore a dark pinstripe suit with stovepipe pants that ended a couple of inches above his wingtips. His white shirt collar stuck out impertinently above his vest, while his belt buckle peeked from below. Sweeney's eyes revealed both calm self-confidence and warm friendliness.

Years later, Howell would describe Sweeney's performance at the dinner: "When Dr. Sweeney's turn came, he spoke of the desirability of forming a club for the mutual improvement and better acquaintance of men gathered from so many lands and interested in the same kind of work." 

In an atmosphere thick with cigar smoke and excitement, Vincent and William Henry Welch, the School's director, warmly endorsed the idea. 

That night, the club that would become known as the Ubiquiteers was born.

"Rarities from All Ends of the Earth"

For more than 40 years, the Ubiquiteers would link doctors and engineers, nurses and scientists, Baltimoreans and Bolivians, Czechs and Chinese. In its days at the School, the Ubiquiteers would bring together the peoples of the world of public health to share science, music, cultural secrets, ethnic foods, and more than a few beers. 

The spirit of camaraderie engendered by the group in the 1920s is still reflected in traditions today at the School, like the Friday student Happy Hours, the annual harbor cruise, and the international dinner. Over the years, its alumni would return home to work for—and later lead—ministries of health, government agencies, and universities. Ultimately, members of the social circle founded by Sweeney would help shape global public health research and policy.

The Ubiquiteers' name (which Howell referred to as that "pleasing addition to our thesaurus verborum") can be traced to Thomas John LeBlanc, ScD '24, the club's third president. As the Ubiquiteers' first yearbook makes clear, the etymology of Ubiquiteers "suggests rarities from all ends of the earth." The members were from everywhere, they were ubiquitous, hence they were Ubiquiteers. Their mission, as Sweeney later described it, was to "cultivate useful friendships, to broaden and develop minds; and to always stand ready to serve its members who might be in distant lands." 

By its second year, the Ubiquiteers doubled their membership to 62 students from 23 countries. Founding members met incoming students at the railroad stations and helped them find living quarters. They scheduled regular dinners, tea parties, picnics, and smokers (informal social gatherings). Often a student would present a talk about his or her country and "its government, its people, religious and social customs, public health activities, et cetera," noted Sweeney, who eschewed formality and was proud that the club ran itself without the "frills of a constitution with the trimmings of by-laws." 

Through the years Ubiquiteers meetings mixed seminars on scientific subjects (anything from the control of plague in Manchuria to what health officers could do to counter cancer) with dances, piano recitals, sing-alongs, group daytrips, and dinners with an astounding assortment of ethnic foods. A sampling from the 1927 meeting minutes demonstrates the diversity of Ubiquiteers gatherings: 

Feb. 14 – International Night. A large map of the world was mounted and as the names of the various nations were called off, their representatives (in national costumes) came forward and pinned emblems at the proper spot. Dr. Skokowlska and Mr. Wrzesien executed a Polish dance in native costume. Dr. King read a list of health maxims in Chinese, which were then translated into English by Dr. Woo.

March 21 – Four reels of health motion pictures. Smoker and dance. 

May 11 – Illustrated talk on Borneo, South Sea Islands, and India, including picture of a lion hunt.

May 21 – Dr. C.F. Jordan and Mrs. A. Widal played piano solos. Dr. C.W. Strowger recited a Pennsylvania Dutch version of Poe's "The Raven."

To stay in touch with alumni, the early Ubiquiteers sent yearbooks to former members around the world and included letters from graduates reporting on their work and lives. In a March 8, 1923, letter, J. Celarek reported on his work in the Serum Department in the Epidemiological Institute in Warsaw and commented on his School days. ("I saw the serious work and I was taught to do it," he wrote.) Dr. O. Slanina of Holesov, Czechoslovakia, summarized his battle against a scarlet fever epidemic. And C.E. Lim, at Peking Union Medical College, spoke briefly of his bacteriology work there, but expended considerable space responding to a question inquiring as to his marital status. Still a bachelor, Lim lamented: "One feels one cannot afford to get married in these days. Modern Chinese girls take to dancing and jazz as well as other things foreign so readily that a poor professional man will find it difficult to meet the constant demands on his purse from his foreignised wife."

Despite the good times and strong personal bonds formed among students each year, the organization was a chronically on-again, off-again affair. Already by 1924, lack of interest canceled the annual Ubiquiteers dinner. A new MPH cohort would arrive each fall never having heard of the Ubiquiteers. The organization would have to be reborn annually, relying on the memory and enthusiasm of lingering doctoral students and faculty advisors like Howell and, later, Professor Helen Abbey. Depending on the temperament of each group, the Ubiquiteers would be an active, close-knit organization or a rushed afterthought.

In his 1927 remembrance, Howell placed his hopes for the Ubiquiteers in a new club constitution adopted that year. Among other things, the constitution officially broadened membership, declaring that all students at the School were automatically members of the Ubiquiteers. But the "little League of Nations" (as one early member called the club) would thrive more because of individual spirit and the need for camaraderie than the formalized bylaws so disdained by founder James Shirley Sweeney.

Surviving "Terrible Times"

Despite the Great Depression then afflicting the United States, 22 students ponied up 15 or 25 cents each for dues in 1931, boosting the treasury to $4.15. Treasurer Robert Dyar parodied the perpetually dire state of the Ubiquiteers bankroll in 1937 when he wrote, "Our $.07 (seven cents) we bequeath to our successors, the class of '38, and trust that they may have as much pleasure from it, as we have had from the products of and additions to our original dowry of 1¢, so generously preserved for us by our predecessors."

With the 1933 repeal of Prohibition, beer, not finances, became a prime focus for Ubiquiteers meetings. A group picture from a February 5, 1936, soiree shows a well-dressed crowd of men and women genteelly hoisting glass mugs of beer for the camera. (One woman seated in the center appears to be smoking a stogie.) The party, held in the club's own room in the Wolfe Street building, boasted a menu that wouldn't be considered entirely healthy by today's standards: 30 gallons of beer and "large quantities of rye bread, pretzels, cheeses, pickles, and sausages." Indeed, the club provided "Cokes and cigarettes" for a later gathering.

Even as nations prepared for a war that would soon engulf the world, Ubiquiteers from many countries gathered one evening in April 1939 to sing by the piano and dance to records played on a Victrola. "The records for dancing were somewhat old—[but] so were the dancers," noted one club officer. During World War II, the Ubiquiteers hosted occasional parties and picnics. But it was difficult; many students and faculty had left for home or joined the war effort. Those who remained worried about family and friends caught up in the conflict. Wu Lien Teh, president of the Ubiquiteers in 1925, wrote back to the School on October 4, 1945, to report on conditions in Malaya after years of Japanese occupation. "We have all gone through terrible times during the past four years," he wrote. "Some have lost brothers and sisters, others fathers, others again have themselves suffered injuries and personal losses."

Postwar Years

The Ubiquiteers nurtured reconciliation and understanding among former adversaries almost immediately after the war's end. Gilbert Levin, PhD, still remembers today a conversation he had with an Italian studnet in 1947. "Most of us had been in the war one way or another and so had [he]—but on the wrong side," says Levin, now CEO of Spherix, Inc. "He obviously liked this country tremendously. I asked him what happened in Italy. The Italians are such wonderful, peaceful people. He said, 'It's easy for you to say. In America, it's easy to be a democrat.' "

But a new understanding of other cultures wasn't the only benefit for Levin. "Actually, it not only lowered the barriers that separate people from different countries, but different disciplines as well," Levin says. "The MDs [got] completely lost in statistics. The engineers didn't know any biology. A lot of information got exchanged on a basis of need-to-know to do current projects."

Levin and friend Walter Lyon were Hopkins engineering students in 1947 and began attending Ubiquiteers gatherings because legendary Professor Abel Wolman insisted that his engineering students understand public health. While taking classes from occupational health guru Anna Baetjer and famed epidemiologist Kenneth Maxcy, Lyon attended Ubiquiteers meetings with the standard public health students. He recalls once taking a date to a Ubiquiteers dance attended by his professor, Abel Wolman. "The only problem was he danced with her the whole night," Lyon recalls. "I didn't see much of her. But that's okay."

Through its annual rebirths and constant infusions of new students, the Ubiquiteers thrived into the 1960s. Salomon Srulevich, MPH '58, a gregarious Uruguayan of Ukrainian-Rumanian extraction, found his natural niche as the club's social director in the early 1960s when he was doing research at the School. The 80-year-old Srulevich, now retired and living in northern Virginia, energetically took to his assignment and organized Happy Hours, musical recitals, dinners, trips to sporting events, and square dances. "We did a lot of things," Srulevich says. "You are talking of a happy time of my life. It was a beautiful time."

The organization filled a social void and gave students a reason to do more than just attend class together. Mary Ann Caston, MPH '62, who was secretary of the group from 1961 to 1962, says she and fellow U.S. students wanted their international colleagues to feel welcome, to learn more about their temporary home, and to forestall any homesickness. "At that time in the early '60s, the world was not as small as it is now," she says. "People who came would leave their families behind for one, two, four years."

Caston remembers the annual International Dinner where Ubiquiteers brought dishes native to their home countries, a culinary tradition still carried on annually by students today. She sampled the "real hot" curries, different breads, and lime pickles with curiosity and more than a little trepidation. A native of Shelby, N.C., Caston contributed a Southern version of American food: pecan pies and fried chicken. During one party, she remembers being asked to dance by a Sikh student wearing a white turban. As she twirled across the floor with him, she remembers thinking, If my mother could only see me now!

The club Caston remembers wasn't just about having a good time, however. She learned "as much or more" from her fellow Ubiquiteers as she did in class. "We learned from each other [that] we were really facing such different kinds of health problems," says Caston, now a vice president of community services at the Benjamin Rose Institute in Cleveland, Ohio. "The third world countries, if you want to use that phrase, were still dealing with sewage problems and cholera, smallpox and malaria, and infant mortality. When we talked about chronic disease [in the United States], they'd say, 'We're still facing acute infectious disease.' " 

With a membership that included men and women of all races, the Ubiquiteers overturned gender and racial prejudices decades before the rest of America. While some of its members might not be welcome at certain Baltimore hotels or restaurants even into the 1960s, they always had a place at the Ubiquiteers table. The group made similar inroads to gender equality. Though the original 1921–22 class was all male, women had joined the club within a few years. A search of Ubiquiteers files at the Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions yields the first mention of a woman member: Mary Rohm, an American in the 1925 class.  

Though still far outnumbered by men, women by the 1960s "were kind of accepted," recalls Caston. "We probably even were showered with attention," she says. 

Many Happy Hours

By the mid-1960s, the Friday Happy Hour had become the Ubiquiteers' most popular function. Every Friday afternoon at 4 p.m., faculty and students would socialize over beer and snacks, recalls Richard Hsieh, DrPH '66, MPH '65, the Ubiquiteers president in 1964. Hsieh remembers how a little conversation and cold beer thawed Cold War attitudes. He had expected a group of Yugoslavian students to be dour, straight-faced Communists. "[But] they were the greatest storytellers," Hsieh says. "They [would] tell jokes and keep on telling jokes after a few beers." 

Despite its four decades of tradition, the Ubiquiteers wouldn't survive the 1960s. Perhaps the tumultuous decade's cultural changes or the availability of other social outlets obviated the need for a general student club. With the students' social life filled by Friday Happy Hours, international dinners, and the Student Assembly, the Ubiquiteers as a formal organization faded away. At some point, the club's annual rebirth just didn't occur. No records of the Ubiquiteers exist in the archives after 1966. 

However, the social interaction—the Ubiquiteers' raison d'être—among students is still a "critical" part of their education, according to Dean Alfred Sommer, MD, MHS '73. "Our students have a wealth of expertise and experience that's not been written in a book or in a paper but that can be shared with you and with each other," says Sommer, who occasionally stops by the student Happy Hour for a beer and conversation. 

The students who congregate on Friday afternoons on the green carpet of the Wolfe Street building's student lounge this fall no longer call themselves Ubiquiteers. Few, if any, have even heard of such an organization or its founder. James Shirley Sweeney left the School in 1924 for a long career in medicine and public health. Sweeney started an internal medicine practice in Dallas, served in the U.S. Army medical corps in World War II, established a veteran's hospital in Colorado, and founded the Texas Diabetes Association. Ever interested in pulling people together to further health, Sweeney, who died in 1976, began a camp in Texas for diabetic youth. Since 1950, more than 20,000 youngsters have visited Camp Sweeney, which still exists today. 

At the School, the Sweeney spirit still infuses each social gathering where students talk science and share experiences from their disparate cultures. Through their conversations and exchange of ideas, they are no doubt fulfilling a prediction inscribed in the 1923 Ubiquiteers yearbook: "When in the future they come together—as they will—real international health movements will be born."