Columbians Ahead of Their Time

"No stauncher American, no abler and more disinterested public servant, and no finer natural soldier than [John] Purroy Mitchel was to be found in all our country."

— Theodore Roosevelt

John Purroy Mitchel (1879–1918 )
New York City Mayor
Columbia College 1899

An ardent foe of the Tammany Hall political machine, John Purroy Mitchel drew national attention for his reform efforts before and during his single term as mayor of New York. While in office Mitchel cut waste, improved accounting practices, and worked to professionalize the city's civil service by standardizing salaries and work guidelines for municipal employees; in doing so he laid the groundwork for further anti-Tammany reforms by future mayors, particularly Fiorello LaGuardia. The man widely known as the "Boy Mayor" (elected at age 34, Mitchel remains the youngest man ever to hold the position) also fought police corruption, instituted the nation’s first zoning guidelines for development, and appointed the first woman to lead a major municipal agency in any U.S. city. Mitchel was just five years removed from New York Law School when he initially made his name, leading investigations into a pair of corrupt borough presidents in 1906. Three years later, aligned with anti-Tammany forces, he was elected as president of the city’s board of aldermen, the forerunner to the modern city council. He gained the mayoralty on a reform ticket in 1913 but was defeated soundly by a Tammany-backed candidate in his re-election bid four years later. Soon after leaving office, with World War I still raging in Europe, Mitchel joined the Army Air Service. He was only 38 when he died in a bizarre training accident, falling 500 feet from his plane in Lake Charles, Louisiana.

As a Columbia College student, Mitchel belonged to the Philolexian Society, the campus literary club. As mayor, his plan for civil service reform was developed by a young Robert Moses, who had studied the topic for his doctoral dissertation at Columbia and had just begun his career at the Municipal Research Bureau. Mitchel is commemorated with both an installation in Central Park and the eponymous Mitchel Square, a small park bordered by St. Nicholas Avenue, Audubon Avenue, and 166th Street that abuts Columbia University Medical Center. At Columbia College, the John Purroy Mitchel Memorial Fund—the result of a 1938 bequest by Mitchel’s mother—provides financial aid to deserving students.

Before serving as Columbia's president, Seth Low was mayor of then-independent Brooklyn; he left Columbia to become mayor of consolidated New York City.

For good and for ill, Robert Moses had unrivaled impact in shaping the physical structure of New York City and surrounding areas.

Columbia's oldest student organization promotes literary awareness and the art of rhetoric among its members.

Columbia's history, as seen by those who have studied, taught, and worked here.

Columbians have changed the world and how we see it.

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