Have Historians Ignored The Real Founder Of Marquette University? The Legacy Of Dr. W. J. Cronyn

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Category: Marquette Law School, Marquette Law School History, Milwaukee
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Dr.  William Jerome Cronyn is a forgotten figure in the history of Marquette University.  Neither Professor Jablonsky nor Father Hamilton mentions him in their histories of the university.  However, the case can be made that it was Dr. Cronyn, a professor at the Milwaukee Medical College and a former student at the Milwaukee Law School, who first publicly advanced the idea of converting Marquette College into a full-fledged university containing both a medical school and a law school.

During the early years of the twentieth century, the independent Milwaukee Law School celebrated the end of each academic year with a banquet.  The featured speaker at the June 1906 banquet was Dr. Cronyn.  According to a story in the June 28, 1906, Stevens Point Daily Journal, in his remarks at the dinner, Cronyn “suggested the organization of a ‘Milwaukee University’ to be brought about through the consolidation of the Milwaukee College of Physicians and Surgeons, the Milwaukee Medical college, Marquette college and the Milwaukee Law school.”  Such a consolidation, would, Cronyn maintained, be “along the line of development for a Greater Milwaukee.”  According to the Daily Journal, which was covering the address primarily because Cronyn’s wife was a member of the prominent Gate family of Stevens Point, Cronyn’s  remarks “were received with enthusiastic applause.”

The law school banquet was not the first time that Cronyn had advanced the idea of the merger of Marquette College with Milwaukee’s independent professional schools. 

On June 1, he had also been the after dinner speaker at the commencement banquet of the Milwaukee Medical College, and during his remarks there, he called for the union of the Medical College with the city’s Catholic college.  The proposal was reportedly met with great applause in this venue as well. 

Cronyn’s remarks at the annual dinner of the Milwaukee Law School came exactly one week after Marquette College had celebrated its “Silver Jubilee.”  The three-day anniversary event had honored the creation of Marquette in 1881 and its subsequent accomplishments, but there was apparently no mention at the event of any plans to expand the college into a university.  At that point, the primary emphasis was on the building of a new college structure (which turned out to be Johnston Hall).

In his Milwaukee’s Jesuit University: Marquette, 1881-1991 (2007), Professor Thomas Jablonsky sets out the sequence by which Marquette College became Marquette University.  In the spring of 1906, a few months before Cronyn’s call for a new “Milwaukee University,” Dr. William H. Earles, president and owner of the Milwaukee Medical College, whose faculty included Dr. Cronyn, met with Marquette College president Alexander Burrows, S. J., to discuss the possibility of some form of collaboration between the two institutions.  Burrows appeared uninterested at the time, and nothing came directly from this meeting. 

However, by early 1907, President Burrows attitude had changed, possibly because of the positive reaction to Cronyn’s proposals.  In May, the college and the medical school agreed to affiliate under the name of Marquette University. 

Once the medical school merger was complete discussions began between Marquette and the Milwaukee Law School.  It initially looked like this second merger might occur in time for the 1907-08 academic year, but disagreement over the price that Marquette would pay for the law school’s assets (which were largely intangible) delayed the merger until the spring of 1908.  Before the 1908 academic year began, Marquette also purchased the small Milwaukee University Law School.

While Cronyn ,of course, cannot be said to be solely responsible for the mergers that led to the creation of Marquette University, his remarks at the two June 1906 banquets and the developments that followed suggest that he played an important part in the school’s transition from college to university, and a part that has rarely been acknowledged.

Cronyn’s personal story is a fascinating one, separate and apart from his connection to Marquette.  He was born in Ontario, Canada on November 15, 1849, and educated in Roman Catholic schools.  He emigrated to the United States in 1864 at age 15 to enlist in the 30th Michigan Infantry in which he served until the end of the Civil War.  After the war he studied medicine in upstate New York, receiving his medical degree in 1870 from the University of Buffalo.  He became a United States citizen and practiced medicine in Chautauqua County, New York until 1893, except for the years 1873 to 1876 when he served as a physician in the United States Navy.  He moved to Milwaukee in the summer of 1893, after marrying Levara C. Cate, the daughter of George W. Cate, a prominent Wisconsin judge.

In addition to his work as a physician and medical educator, Cronyn was very active in the Grand Army of the Republic and served in the Wisconsin National Guard as a surgeon and later as a military adviser to the governor of Wisconsin.  He also found time to study law at the Milwaukee Law School, and in 1903, he joined the faculty of the Milwaukee Medical College, teaching classes on medical jurisprudence, forensic medicine, military hygiene, and medical ethics.  He was an enthusiastic supporter of the Boy Scouts in the Milwaukee area and a 32nd degree Mason.  He was also a constant presence at military reunions and ceremonies and was the last Civil War veteran to serve as an active member of the Wisconsin National Guard.

Cronyn’s role in the merger of the Milwaukee Law School into Marquette University may also explain the decision to award him an honorary bachelor of laws degree at the 1908 Marquette commencement, the first after the announcement of the acquisition of the Milwaukee Law School by Marquette.  At the 1908 commencement, apparently as part of the merger agreement, all former students of the Milwaukee Law School who had been admitted to the Wisconsin bar were awarded Marquette law degrees.  (The Milwaukee Law School itself had had no degree-granting authority, but bar admission in that era did not require graduation from a law school.)

In the commencement program, Cronyn was not listed with those receiving a regular law degree—he may not have been eligible as there is no evidence that he ever attempted to practice law or secured admission to the bar—but his name appeared on the more celebrated list of those receiving honorary degrees.

Cronyn was also listed as a member of the original Marquette law faculty in 1908-09.  The only course he taught at the law school was Medical Jurisprudence, a course described in the law school bulletin as embracing “the rights, duties and responsibilities growing out of the relation of the physician to his patient and the community, and includes the subject of expert testimony in medico-legal cases.”  Medical Jurisprudence was an elective course for senior (third year) law students.  Under the original law school curriculum there were four elective courses, of which students in their final year had to take at least one, but not more than two. 

Apparently Medical Jurisprudence was not a popular elective and after a couple of years, the course was reduced to single lecture delivered annually by Cronyn.  By 1915, Cronyn’s name no longer appeared in the law school catalog, but he continued to teach at the Marquette Medical School until just before his death on Feb. 23, 1918 in Milwaukee.

Cronyn’s enthusiasm for the new Marquette University was not limited to the law and medical colleges.  He was, for example, the speaker at the 1908 Marquette football banquet.  During his remarks, he not only praised the efforts of the school’s gridiron contingent (which included players from the law and medical schools), but he also called for the new university to enter a team in the crew competitions on the Hudson River in New York.  According to a report in the December 6, 1908 New York Times Cronyn pledged to personally raise the necessary money if the University would take up “aquatic” sports.

William George Bruce’s History of Milwaukee, City and County (1922) is one of the few published works to credit Cronyn with a central role in the creation of Marquette University.  The book also contains a magnificent photograph of Dr. Cronyn decked out in his Wisconsin military regalia.  It would be a fitting tribute to the law school’s forgotten “founder” to have a copy of that photograph displayed in Eckstein Hall.

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2 Responses to “Have Historians Ignored The Real Founder Of Marquette University? The Legacy Of Dr. W. J. Cronyn”

  1. Gordon Hylton Says:

    The photograph mentioned at the end of the above post can be found online in the Google Books edition of Bruce’s History at

    http://books.google.com/books?id=0EEVAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA661&dq=cronyn+bruce#v=onepage&q=&f=false

    It is also reprinted in Martin Hintz’ Irish Milwaukee and can be viewed at

    http://books.google.com/books?id=I-kOI5_Pp8IC&pg=PA82&dq=cronyn+milwaukee+irish#v=onepage&q=&f=false

  2. My grandfather, Dr. Walter C. Roth, told me he was one of the leaders of a boycott of the medical school. He said all or most of the students went home to the farm for a semester until the curriculum was upgraded to a class-a med school, not sure of the year.

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