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Wilbur A. Sawyer Papers 1879-1995
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Collection Scope and Content Note


Correspondence, diaries, photographs, financial records, and ephemera (1879-1995; 4.2 linear feet) document the professional life of Wilbur A. Sawyer and primarily his yellow fever research for the Rockefeller Foundation's International Health Board and International Health Division. Much of Sawyer's professional work consisted of traveling abroad for the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) and as part of its official reporting mechanism, field workers kept daily diaries of their travels for progress reports noting contacts, summaries of meetings, topics discussed, and general opinions and thoughts. The original donation by RF colleague Fred Soper consisted of the complete collection of Sawyer's diaries, including those related to his RF fieldwork. Roughly between 1925 and 1937, Sawyer traveled to some of the most remote regions of the world where few Westerners had ever been--places such as Australia, Java, Ceylon, India, South Africa, French Equatorial Africa, Belgian Congo, Palestine, Egypt, Brazil, Ecuador, and Panama. Sawyer's public health work establishing yellow fever laboratories, eliminating hookworm disease, constructing drainage canals to eradicate malaria, providing sewers and systems to provide for good sanitation and fresh water, and erecting the infrastructure needed to protect native populations against typhus is documented in these diaries. There are no materials regarding Sawyer's laboratory or administrative work at the Yellow Fever Lab or other RF duties. Researchers should contact the RF Center Archives for these materials.

Moreover, Sawyer was an avid photographer. Series V: Photographs and Motion Pictures contain a vast image collection of the places and people he encountered and activities in which he engaged. This series is perhaps the most intellectually significant portion of the collection. The photograph albums contain a mixture of personal and professional activities showing Sawyer, his family, professional colleagues, and local people and are chronologically arranged for the most part. Images of personal travel as well as professional field activities are intermixed. Each photograph bears detailed identifying notes written by Sawyer with places, dates, and people named. Two of the earliest albums date from 1920-1923 and document Sawyer's time in Australia where he organized a campaign to eliminate the spread of hookworm disease. This group of photographs also documents his travels to Java, Ceylon, India, and other Pacific, Middle Eastern, and Asian countries. Many of the photographs can be described as richly panoramic, showing the broader landscapes and towns he visited with colleagues and their fieldwork, rather than clinical pictures of laboratories. There are no pictures, and few other materials, which document Sawyer's work with the U.S. military during World War II. His work during the 1930s developing a vaccine for yellow fever took place primarily in the western African countries collectively referred to as the Gold Coast. The four films made by Sawyer as part of the West African Yellow Fever Commission are a rare documentary source. These films show Sawyer in the laboratory and in the field.

Series II: Correspondence contains both personal and professional correspondence subseries. Nearly all of the personal correspondence contains letters to Sawyer's wife Margaret while he was traveling abroad for the RF between 1920-1937. While they do not usually contain details of his clinical work, they do provide detailed evidence of the unique daily life public health fieldworkers experienced. Much of the topics include his mundane travel arrangements and his general observations of places and people, but taken as a whole these letters provide an almost daily account of the work documented in the photographs found in Series V. There is also a large collection of condolence letters written to Margaret Sawyer after his death in 1951. The bulk of the professional correspondence subseries contains mainly routine letters of thanks between colleagues, as well as Sawyer's letters of resignation from his many professional groups as he retired from professional life. The bulk of these letters date between 1948-1951.

Sawyer's personal life is reflected in both the correspondence and photograph series. He often comments on family matters in his personal letters to his wife. There are also many pictures of the extended Sawyer family, including the family of Wallace Carroll to whom his daughter Peg was married. Many portraits of Sawyer, his wife, children and grandchildren can be found throughout the albums. Family gatherings in California, Michigan and North Carolina are documented, as well as the Sawyer home in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY. There are some later pictures taken by Sawyer from his house in Berkeley, CA. The Sawyers were also active vacationers and the collection contains pictures of the family camping and horseback riding in Yosemite National Park in California, hiking in Glacier National Park in Montana, and climbing Mt. Shasta. There are also many pictures of family vacations when the family lived in Australia or when Sawyer visited Europe, Africa, Asia, or the many other countries in which he lived while working. Finally, the Personal and Biographical Series contains an interesting "friendship calendar" presented to Sawyer at his RF retirement. Friends and colleagues, many famous scientists in their own right, wrote individual sentiments, poems, quotes, and caricatures for each day of the year, relating their personal reminiscences of their relationship. Many of the cartoons are quite remarkable.

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