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Ralph H. and Margaret J. Major papers

Identifier: KUMC-MSS-2

Scope and Contents

The Ralph H. and Margaret J. Major papers, which span the years 1902-1974, consist of correspondence, photographic and audiovisual materials, scrapbooks, and manuscripts documenting the professional and private life of Ralph H. Major, MD, and that of his first wife, Margaret J. Major.

Most of the collection pertains to Dr. Major’s academic career at the University of Kansas Medical Center. These materials include lectures and lecture notes, correspondence with other physicians, and a large portion of his professional writings. His professional papers include not only published materials and reprints, but also book reviews, publisher correspondence, royalty receipts, and drafts of his works, including A History of Medicine among others.

Several facets of his personal life are presented in the remaining materials. Included in these are early school photographs, correspondence with a German fraternal organization (Burschenschaft Alemannia Leipzig), correspondence with book dealers, consignment receipts, inventories of his house and book collection, as well as family histories. Of special note are his large collection of photographs and photographic negatives. These primarily document his family gatherings, but also his travels across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, Central America, and the United States from approximately 1903 to 1960.

Margaret J. Major’s materials consist of her autobiography, awards, travel correspondence, and several typescripts. Margaret traveled extensively with her husband and wrote often to her children. Of interest are her diary entries from the 1930s to 1950s (Series 3), which correspond closely with their travel photos and negatives (Series 1, Subseries 3).


  • Creation: 1902 - 1974


Language of Materials

Materials are primarily in English. Some materials in German, Italian, French, Latin, and Greek.

Conditions Governing Access

Some folders are restricted because of their sensitive nature or because they contain personal or confidential information. These records are protected by federal laws such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Examples of restricted records are personnel files, medical records, financial records, and any materials containing personal information such as addresses and social security numbers. Restricted materials are identified at the box and/or folder level within the finding aid. Questions about these materials may be directed to the Archivist. Access may be allowed on a case-by-case basis at the discretion of the KUMC Archives and only after a proposal has been reviewed and approved by the University of Kansas Human Subjects Committee. All requests are subject to review by the Archives staff to determine accessibility.

Conditions Governing Use

Archives staff may determine use restrictions dependent on the physical condition of materials. The researcher assumes full responsibility for conforming with the laws of libel, privacy, and copyright which may be involved in the use of this collection.

Biographical / Historical

Ralph Hermon Major, MD, was born August 24, 1884 in Liberty, Missouri, to John Sleet Major and Virginia Anderson. Ralph, their only child to survive infancy, had an aptitude for playing piano, violin—and especially for learning languages. John Major married Virginia in 1876, and then moved to Kearney, Missouri, after accepting a position as bank president of the Kearney Bank.

In 1889, the family moved to Arkansas and established the community of Kearney, Arkansas, where John operated a lumber mill with his brothers-in-law. In 1896, the family returned to Liberty, Missouri, and built a new home. John Major became President of the First National Bank in Liberty and Chairman of the Board of Trustees at William Jewell College before dying on November 18, 1931.

Ralph enrolled in William Jewell College upon his return to Liberty and graduated in 1902 after studying languages upon his father’s insistence. At the age of 17, he was then the youngest AB holder in the school’s history. Although he considered a foray into banking or law, he was drawn to Europe following graduation. What was meant to be a one-year excursion eventually developed into a three-year adventure, during which he fell in love with Europe and Germany.

It was during this time in Germany that he studied in Leipzig. Around 1904 Ralph joined a Christian, student fraternal organization known as the Burschenschaft Alemannia zu Leipzig. He would stay in contact with his fraternal brothers for the rest of his life (making at least one return visit to Leipzig in 1934). Ralph spent the summer semester of 1905 at the University of Munich by taking several courses in history, as well as statistics and dramaturgy.

Over the course of his travels, the future Dr. Major developed an interest in medicine. According to Major, his father consulted many “friends and doctors” before encouraging Ralph to pursue a doctorate in medicine at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. Having enrolled in 1906, Major graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 1910, and spent the following two years at Johns Hopkins as a resident.

Between 1912 and 1913, Dr. Major once again traveled to Europe, this time for postdoctoral study with clinicians in Vienna and at the University of Munich. Upon returning to the United States, he accepted a post within the pathology department of Stanford University. This turned out to be a short-lived position, however, after he received a letter from Dr. Mervin T. Sudler encouraging him to return to Kansas City to join the University of Kansas School of Medicine.

He accepted Dr. Sudler’s proposition, and so in 1914 at the age of 30, Dr. Major became Professor of Pathology and Bacteriology within the School of Medicine. Although he was shocked by the offer and thought the school was taking a huge risk, it was in fact he who was doing so. The pathology department’s collections were missing, the department was underfunded, and the building lacked adequate janitorial services. Nevertheless, Major made the most of this opportunity and helped transform the department into something magnificent.

Dr. Major married Margaret Norman Jackson on December 11, 1915. Margaret grew up in Kansas City after being born in a home near 10th and McGee Streets around 1891. She graduated from Wellesley College in 1914, and as a proud alum, became the president of the Kansas City Wellesley Club and introduced its annual garden tour. She also was a member of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church her entire life—the site of their wedding and both funerals. Additionally, Margaret was active in the Kansas City Women’s Club and the University of Kansas Medical Center Auxiliary. Though Margaret spent most of her time in the home, she relished her travels with Ralph and their interesting lives. Together, they had three children: Ralph H. Major, Jr., John J. Major, and Virginia Major. Both sons served in the military and attended Yale; their daughter graduated from Wellesley in 1947.

In 1918, following the outbreak of World War I and the United States’ entry into the conflict, Ralph Major was sent to New Haven, Connecticut. He was commissioned as a captain in the Army and assigned to the Yale Laboratory School, which the War Department used to care for wounded soldiers. After a year in Connecticut, Dr. Major was offered and accepted a position at Detroit’s Henry Ford Hospital. He informed Dean Sudler of his resignation after accepting the new position in Michigan, and suggested Dr. Harry R. Wahl as his replacement.

Major’s time in Detroit, however, would be short-lived. He was lured back to the University of Kansas in 1921, where he would serve as Chairman of the Department of Medicine until his retirement from the position in 1950. Major’s return could not have been better timed. Kansas Governor Henry J. Allen was leading an effort to better fund the institution, and the medical school also received support from the state legislature. This resulted in a new campus at 39th and Rainbow in 1924. Major later referred to this period in his short work, An Account of the University of Kansas School of Medicine, as the institution’s “Renaissance.”

Some of Dr. Major’s greatest contributions to medicine occurred during this time. In 1922, he learned of research at the University of Toronto, which included the discovery and isolation of insulin. Major obtained a small supply of insulin and performed the first clinical trials in the Kansas City area. Famously, on January 13, 1923, he injected insulin into a terminally comatose diabetic patient. Not only was the patient revived, but within four days his blood sugar had returned to normal levels. Five months later, Major’s paper, The Treatment of Diabetes Mellitus with Insulin, was featured in the first report on insulin by the Journal of the American Medical Association.

While he liked to refer to this time as the institution’s Renaissance, the term may have been best reserved for him—a true Renaissance man. Over the course of his life, Dr. Major traveled extensively throughout Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Central America. Not only did he speak German, French, and Spanish, but he also commanded a knowledge of Italian, Latin, and Greek. Dr. Major took every opportunity to learn during these trips by visiting many sites important to the history of medicine. He also purchased many artifacts and dealt in rare books during this time.

In 1950, Dr. Major became the second Chair of the Department of History of Medicine and served in the position until 1954. Dr. Logan Clendening, the first chair of the department, passed away in 1945, leaving his 10,000-volume personal library to the university. This became the core collection in the new Clendening History of Medicine Library. Soon after, Dr. Major found himself the steward of this collection as the department head.

Although he officially retired in 1954, Dr. Major was not idle in his retirement. He continued coming to his office part-time while also writing, lecturing, and advising faculty and students. At the library, he spent much time cataloging and making acquisitions—including many of his gifts. In 1955, he and Margaret set off on a trip across Asia, and he accepted a one-semester professorship at the University of the Philippines Manila in the College of Medicine. He received emeritus status from the University of Kansas upon his return.

Dr. Major authored three additional books during his retirement—bringing his career total to ten. These include the classic texts Physical Diagnosis (which became a standard medical school textbook worldwide) and A History of Medicine. He also published over 200 articles on disparate subjects such as arterial hypertension, typhoid fever, pneumonia, lead poisoning, and the history of medicine.

Dr. Major found much success in his life-long endeavors and dedicated nearly 50 years to the University of Kansas. This was not lost on his colleagues. On November 16, 1954, the Ralph H. Major Lectureship launched, and on that same day, he was presented a gold-headed cane recognizing him as a master physician. In January 1970, his official portrait was unveiled, and it still hangs in the Clendening History of Medicine Library today. As fate would have it, the portrait unveiling would be only a few short months before his death on October 15, 1970, at age 86. Margaret J. Major preceded him in death December 7, 1965, at the age of 74.

Dr. Major spent the last years of his life in the company of long-time friend, Wanda Egbert Graham, who he married in November 1967. She donated his and Margaret’s manuscripts to the Clendening History of Medicine Library in 1971. Even still, the memory of Dr. Major lives on, as he was honored posthumously on May 21, 1976, when the School of Medicine dedicated its new science building, Orr-Major Hall.


10.3 Cubic Feet (17 archives boxes, 3 flat boxes, 1 oversized folder, 2 negatives boxes, 5 audio reels (1/4 in., 3 1/4 ips), 2 videocassette (VHS), and 4 record albums (33 1/3 rpm and 78 rpm) )


Very little of the original order remains. The collection has been arranged into three series with seven subseries and ten sub-subseries. Most of the series and subseries are sorted alphabetically by personal name or subject and then chronologically. Correspondence, which exists throughout several of the subseries, has been sorted chronologically. A few subseries still retain signs of their original order. Scrapbooks (Series 2, Subseries 3, Sub-subseries 5) and some photo albums (Series 1, Subseries 3) are retained in their original order, albeit with bindings removed and interwoven with acid-free paper. Other photo albums were condensed by removing blank pages (many photographic prints were missing or removed prior to donation). Overall, folder titles were contrived by the archivist, with the exception of the photographic negatives (Series 1, Subseries 2-3). These were rehoused and retain their original titles and organizational structure (some were modified for consistency and additional identification).

Physical Location

2017A 13-01-01

Custodial History

The bulk of the collection was donated to the Clendening History of Medicine Library by Dr. Major’s second wife, Wanda Egbert Graham, in 1971. It was transferred to the University of Kansas Medical Center Archives in the late 1980s. As of September 2019, some items are still in possession of the Clendening History of Medicine Library. A small number of items in the collection may have been donated directly by campus faculty or other individuals.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The Clendening History of Medicine Library transferred the collection to the KUMC Archives in the late 1980s.

Separated Materials

Dr. Major's gold-headed cane transferred from the KUMC Archives to the Clendening History of Medicine Museum in 2019.

Guide to the Ralph H. and Margaret J. Major Collection
Ralph H. and Margaret J. Major papers
Finding aid prepared by LFT. Finding aid encoded by LFT.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Repository Details

Part of the KUMC Archives Repository

University of Kansas Medical Center
2017 Robinson, Mail Stop 1025
3901 Rainbow Boulevard
Kansas City KS 66160 United States