University of Rochester Library Bulletin: Reminiscences of George Eastman, an Introduction

Volume XXVI · Number 3 · Spring 1971
Reminiscences of George Eastman; an Introduction
--ROGER BUTTERFIELD, Author of "The Prodigious Life of George Eastman," Life, April 26, 1954


Rochester and George Eastman were so closely synonymous during much of the first half of this century that anyone seriously interested in the city must wish to discover everything possible about the man. And vice versa. Eastman's business activities, his benefactions, and cultural interests, were world-wide in their impact and scope. But his life and the city's modern development were so intertwined, and often interdependent, that the story of one is an explanation of the other.

The articles and reminiscences in this special issue of the University of Rochester Library Bulletin contain valuable insights and new facts about Eastman. They also begin, it seems to me, a more thorough and scholarly approach to the study of his extraordinarily fruitful career. It is important that this is being done through the initiative of the enlarged University Library, which will always be a meeting place for researchers in the many fields in which Eastman was interested.


One thing George Eastman strongly wished to promote was good health, especially among children, and starting in Rochester. At a time when some doctors blamed many ills on tonsils Eastman decided it would be a good thing to remove every tonsil from every Rochester schoolchild, and to do the main part of the job at once. He provided funds and executive direction, prodded school authorities and hospital staffs into cooperating, borrowed the city's Convention Hall for a mass operating theater, and moved in long rows of tables and cots. The ensuing round-the-clock tonsillectomy marathon alarmed and fascinated the whole medical world. Streets around the Hall teemed with anxious parents propelling their even more anxious offspring toward the ether cones and surgical tools. I remember the frenzy of this scene because I went along to give moral support to some schoolmates (my own tonsils were already out). Luckily there were very few really sick patients, and no fatalities.

A similar urge of Eastman's to assure every local child a sound set of teeth led to his building the Alexander Street clinic that many Rochesterians remember well; it became the model for other dental clinics which Eastman presented to a half dozen cities in England and Europe.

I myself benefited less from Eastman's public health experiments than from what might be called his socialized music scheme in the city's schools. Under this arrangement every sizeable school was allotted enough musical instruments--paid for by Eastman--to fill out a proper orchestra or band. A student with musical yearnings could borrow such an instrument free of any cost for a year, or longer. Of course many borrowers soon coaxed their parents into letting them have an instrument of their own--in my case a new silver flute to replace the one I got from George Eastman--and with which I first dazzled myself, if not my audience, in the high-flying solo of the William Tell overture.


Eastman's interest in health and music was the immediate parent of two great institutions-the University's Medical School, and the Eastman School of Music. Books, I believe, interested him much less, though he had a very handsome personal library, just off the front hall of his home on East Avenue, with richly bound and printed volumes lined up on shelves that reached to the ceiling. When I was researching a biographical article on Eastman, in the 1950's, I spent considerable time in this library, but found very few books that showed signs of his reading.

However, a few books were important to Eastman, and I found them eventually, stowed away in an upstairs closet off his private workshop and photo laboratory. They included old schoolbooks of his mother and sister, and a couple of pocket-sized volumes whose text had been written centuries ago by a Roman emperor and a Roman ex-slave. In Eastman's copy of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius there was still a marker that opened to this statement:

"The art of life is more like the wrestler's art than the dancer's, in respect of this, that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets that are sudden and unexpected."

Elsewhere there was one of Eastman's exclusive green pencil marks (well known to the Kodak company hierarchy) alongside this passage: "Short then is the time every man lives, and small the nook of the earth where he lives; and short too the longest posthumous fame . . ."

The second book had also been much handled and read, and I judged it might be Eastman's favorite--it was a very ordinary and low-priced reprint of the Sayings and Maxims of Epictetus. On the flyleaf was copied a quotation he must have read many times:

Conduct me, Zeus, and thou, O Destiny,
Wherever your decrees have fixed my lot,
I follow cheerfully; and did I not,
Wicked and wretched, I must follow still.

These writings of the great Roman Stoics undoubtedly helped to shape George Eastman's mature attitude toward life. They belittled wealth and fame, and offered no hope of a personal immortality. They were fatalists but insisted on the highest standards of ethical conduct. They counselled firmness, an even temper, and a sense of duty toward one's fellow men.

No two books ever did a more useful job.


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