Today’s blog comes from student assistant Immanuel Eggers.

Before campus operations were indefinitely suspended due to the pandemic, I had the honor of processing late WFU professor James Gordon McDowell’s manuscripts as a special project. Dr. McDowell’s intellect was striking: I recall slowing down my work at numerous points to comb over the easily thousands of handwritten note pages, documenting a lifetime’s knowledge of literature, European history, German studies, and an overall appreciation of internationalism. Although I haven’t been faced with these files in over a year, I vividly remember filling entire boxes with meticulously kept notes on German history, labelled chronologically, and becoming thoroughly impressed with the bounds of a single individual’s expertise. Perhaps even more impressively, McDowell produced this scholarship alongside an eclectic life which busied him with other community leadership roles, from creating two new University programs, to serial trips abroad, to chairing and sitting on a litany of administrative committees. Little has been written publicly about McDowell’s impressionable legacy, so I again have the honor of documenting his life and impact on the Wake Forest community.

James G. McDowell, circa 1970s


Dr. James Gordon McDowell was born on April 25, 1930, to Dorothy Vanderpool McDowell and Maxwell E. McDowell of Scarsdale, N.Y. Maxwell McDowell was a tax authority, who worked for Standard Oil’s tax department and the Bureau of Internal Revenue for many years. He lectured on the subject across the U.S., having received master’s and law degrees from Princeton University. He was thoroughly familiar with higher education, as a trustee and Honorary Doctor of Laws at Colgate University and the national chair of the Theta Chi fraternity. James’ only brother, John Herbert McDowell, was an esteemed composer who worked on over 150 pieces for ballet, theatre including Broadway, and Hollywood, a résumé which helped earn him a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1962. John was an eccentric and eclectic artist, producing an inordinate range of music: the experimental genre in New York City, concerts and orchestral scores, satirical compositions which showed his unique humor and appreciation for wordplay. John was often on record calling himself the most produced composer in the history of dance, though that claim is not falsified. Dorothy McDowell, unfortunately, had to survive the tragic losses of these men in her family: first her husband Maxwell in December 1954, her younger son James in November 1983, and finally her elder son John in September 1985.

James McDowell, often known as Jim, was a lifelong academic. He received a bachelor’s degree from Colgate University, like his father, in 1952 and a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University in 1964, where he studied German and European history and politics. After receiving his bachelor’s degree, McDowell worked as a historical advisor for the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. There from 1959-1960, McDowell co-authored the Guides to German Records, which remain in the National Archives today. After receiving his doctorate, McDowell joined the WFU History Department in 1965, and was promoted to an associate professor between 1969-1970. He lived in Germany at least twice, in 1964 after completing his bachelor’s degree, and from Spring 1973-1974 using a R. J. Reynolds research leave award. During his sabbatical, he studied the transition of Nazi Germany’s reign into foreign military occupation and contributed his findings to the Library of Congress and National Archives in Washington, D.C.

Commitment to Wake Forest and Education (1965-1982)

Aside from producing nationally-acclaimed scholarship, Dr. McDowell contributed greatly to the Wake Forest community. During his time in the History Department, McDowell advised the Graduate, Honors, and Requirement Committees, including the Honors Committee in 1968-1969. From 1979-1981, he coordinated and supervised Wake Forest’s participation in the North Carolina History Day competitions. Administratively, he sat on the Committee on Rule Revision, Student Rights and Freedoms from 1969-1971, which revised the University’s Honor Code and Code of Conduct. McDowell sat on the Committee on Scholarship Aid in 1969-1973 and served as its Chairman in 1973. He was elected to the Committee on Institutional Planning for a four-year term, from 1979-1983, where he chaired the Tribble Plaza subcommittee. He was also on the Committee of Male Student Housing from at least 1981-1982, rejecting an offer to chair the Committee due to other commitments.

Apart from committee service, McDowell was a lead petitioner to the University and Department of Education to create the International Studies and Foreign Language Program, developing the Program from 1969-1981. These efforts helped spawn the modern International Studies minor, expand the Politics department’s courses in international affairs, and increase the number of foreign languages taught at Wake, including Japanese, Arabic, Portufuse, Chinese, Hebrew, Hindi, and Russian. With the goal of expanding student and faculty immersion in foreign languages and cultures, these efforts increased the selection of study abroad opportunities offered on campus, applied foreign language courses and requirements, and raised awareness and financial support for student and career opportunities abroad. In line with his expertise, McDowell also compiled a dossier and successfully petitioned for the creation of the German Studies minor in 1980.

A belief in the value of an on-the-ground education, especially in international affairs, was evident in McDowell’s instructional approach. Aside from his development of the International Studies and Foreign Language program, McDowell chaperoned the Worrell House, London, trip abroad in Spring 1981. His records indicate that he worked diligently to adjust and accommodate his group of a dozen scholars, through coordinating meetings and dine-ins to discuss the trip in advance and corresponding home frequently to update students’ families. McDowell also traveled with Reynolda Campus students to the nation’s capital in a unique class called “Historical Research in Washington, D.C.” Harold Colson (1978), an academic librarian and one-time research assistant to the late professor, recalled that McDowell’s influence and course “…forged [his] desire to continue [his] education and become a librarian.” The research that Colson compiled in the two-week capital trip of McDowell’s Winter 1977 course fueled his first academic publication.

A Man of Care and Community

Dr. McDowell’s records indicate that he maintained a community of scholars and showed care for the people he worked and studied with. A variety of individuals across the nation and abroad corresponded with him regularly about personal affairs, many penning postcards and thank you notes to “Jim” for his hospitality or aid in their studies. Students and scholarly peers alike regularly updated him in their future endeavors, often related to their studies with him, or their experiences abroad, indicating how impressionable McDowell’s presence was. It’s apparent that he reached out to check in on past students regularly, who wrote back personably to his wife and son. His letters also indicate just how busy McDowell was, honing his expertise and maintaining personal projects, through sending and receiving inquiries, notes, and citations about German history frequently among his scholarly colleagues.

In Fall 1982, the Wake Forest community was saddened by McDowell’s leave and disappearance. Distraught over the loss of his beloved wife Hannelore in September 1981, McDowell took a semester medical leave to receive care for his mental health. On November 1, 1982, he was reported missing, and in January 1983, he was found deceased by an exterminator under his house in Winston-Salem from an apparent suicide. He was survived by his mother, brother, and son, who was 16 years old at the time he was found. McDowell is remembered warmly by the University community, with many publicly memorializing the loss of such a dynamic community member and prolific academic. The History Department created the James G. McDowell History Fund in his memory, supporting guest speakers and the Phi Alpha Theta (PAT) International History Association, both of which honor McDowell’s lifelong commitment to diverse and international perspectives in academia.