This is the first in a two-part series on the life of Peter Putnam ‘42 *50 in Princeton, before and after he lost his sight. This first installment focuses on the events leading up to the incident in which he was blinded and his fight to return to Princeton University afterward.
Peter Putnam entered Princeton University in 1938 with a talent for academics, but lacking in direction. Because he had long expected to join the Army, he had also assumed he would attend West Point, like his father before him, but the elder Putnam suggested his son find a less frustrating career. The looming threat of war may or may not have influenced the Putnams; in any case, an uncle and other relatives had attended Princeton, and many of Putnam’s classmates were headed there, so it seemed like the default place for him to go. Decades later, Putnam described his 1938 arrival at Princeton University as entering “a fairyland and hell to me for years to come.”
While in college, Putnam was engaged in an internal war with himself, alternately taking advantage of the pleasures offered to a privileged young man in the Ivy League and becoming frustrated when no consequences for his hedonistic lifestyle materialized. He drank and partied his way through a few years, and his photographic memory meant no real need to study in order to pass his classes. Putnam was not a stellar student, to be sure, but he was still doing relatively well, earning grades that would have allowed him to graduate with honors, whether he applied himself or not—and mostly he did not. In a letter to the Dean of the College, Putnam later made some references to family problems contributing to his feelings of despair, without detailing what they were.
A bout with appendicitis and mononucleosis in his junior year deepened Putnam’s depression. He began fantasizing about playing Russian roulette with a revolver to which he had access, wrote a suicide note, and carried bullets to be prepared for the moment he would call it quits on life. He deliberately isolated himself, quitting his extracurriculars and moving into a single room. When Houseparties weekend came in 1941, Putnam went to visit his parents instead of socializing. There, he attempted to carry out his plans.
Putnam survived the gunshot, but his vision did not. The bullet severed his optic nerves. Although coming out of a 10-day coma reportedly jolted him out of his depression, giving him a sense of purpose and new goals to work toward, he would now be followed by a double stigma of mental illness and physical disability in an era when neither were granted legal protection against discrimination. He would spend the rest of his life in Princeton contending with both.
A published record has long existed for Putnam’s struggles, but a fuller picture emerges from the unpublished materials housed in the University Archives. This first post in a two-part series about Putnam examines his fight to return to Princeton as a blind person who had survived a suicide attempt. A second will detail the life he lived in Princeton as a student, an employee, and an alum.
After obtaining a guide dog from the Seeing Eye school in Morristown, New Jersey, Putnam approached the Dean of the College, Christian Gauss, to discuss what he would need. He was surprised that Princeton had a very different idea about his future than he did. Putnam noted in an article he wrote for the Saturday Review in 1963 that Gauss was likely concerned, in part, about another student who had felt the despair Putnam had felt, and had made similar plans, which in that case had been fatal. In all probability, Putnam was referring to Frank Orville Birney ’42, who had entered Princeton with Putnam and had been distressed, among other things, by the attack on Pearl Harbor before his death by suicide. Indeed, a letter from Wilbur York, chair of McCosh Infirmary, to Gauss on December 15, 1941—the same day as Birney’s death—echoes these concerns: “Peter’s…is a long-term problem made all the more serious by the fact that he had been moody before he lost his sight.”
York also wrote to Putnam’s mother. “We have no right to place an unnecessary strain on Peter’s physical and nervous energy that might later result in an unfortunate breakdown.” The worries officials expressed were wide-ranging, however, from concerns that a dog could not navigate Princeton in the winter when the snow fell to York’s fear that Putnam’s presence on campus would draw “unwholesome pity” from people around him.
Putnam, for his part, was aware of how people would be likely to respond to him if they knew he had attempted suicide, and asked that this information be kept confidential. He did not publicly disclose the true cause of his blindness until his 1957 book, Cast Off the Darkness. He wrote to Gauss around December 1941 explaining, “I prefer to keep it private, then, as nearly as possible, because many people are prone to hold this against one as an anti-social act, which offends their vanity as a denial of their egos. I feel that I have too much to do to spend a lot of time merely trying to ‘live down’ a single act of my life.” But he was not willing to go into hiding. He needed to return to a place with familiar people and surroundings in order to become more at ease with a guide dog. Since his family moved so frequently with his father in the Army, the only familiar place available to Putnam to adjust to living a sightless life was the campus of Princeton University.
Putnam went to meet with Gauss in January 1942. In his mind, his re-entry into Princeton was a foregone conclusion, and the fact that Princeton wasn’t inclined to accept him was a shock. He understood now that he was no longer as privileged as he had once been. “My blindness had moved me from the in-group to the out-group. Way out. No more Ivy League for you, boy! Blind men don’t go to Princeton. This college is segregated.” (In later writings, Putnam said that this loss of privilege was what made him begin to understand the harm of racial segregation.)
As for Princeton’s claims of what he needed, Putnam dismissed them all. He could type, read Braille, and navigate the world independently thanks to his guide dog, Minnie. “I had independence of movement. I could read. I could write. I could talk, listen, and think. What techniques were the committee talking about? Making brooms? Weaving baskets?” Putnam also secured a letter from W. H. Ebeling of the Seeing Eye, who also dismissed Princeton’s concerns. “Such advice,” Ebeling wrote, “though well meant, was bad advice. The little aid he needs, he can acquire himself. … The psychological effect upon a young man, who is fighting bravely to remain in the seeing world, is smothering when he is confronted with a belief on the part of those in whom he has faith that he cannot succeed…”
Though Gauss insisted Putnam’s father sign a waiver releasing Princeton of any responsibility for harm that might come to Putnam and required Putnam to carry a reduced course load that had to include music, ultimately Putnam regained entry into Princeton University and permission to bring Minnie along. Next week, I will tell you how Putnam fared in the familiar, yet unfamiliar, world of an institution that was not particularly inclined to have him there anymore.
Graduate Alumni Records (AC105)
Putnam, Peter Brock. Cast Off the Darkness. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company: 1957.
__________. “If You Had a Choice.” Saturday Review, October 26, 1963.
__________. Keep Your Head Up, Mr. Putnam! New York: Harper & Brothers, 1952.
__________. Love in the Lead: The Fifty-Year Miracle of the Seeing Eye Dog. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1954.
__________. Peter, the Revolutionary Tsar. New York: Harper and Row, 1973.
__________. Seven Britons in Imperial Russia. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952.
_________. Spiritual Adventures with Peter Putnam: A Collection of Sixteen Sermons from 1955 to 1995. Princeton, New Jersey: Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Princeton, 2000.
__________. The Triumph of the Seeing Eye. Ed. Walter Lord. New York: Harper & Row, 1963.
Triangle Club Records (AC122)
Undergraduate Academic Records (AC198)
Undergraduate Alumni Records (AC199)