When a Yale dean snidely called a recent Eli student stunt "a great deal better than face slapping or eating live goldfish," he revived an issue as dead as--one hopes--are the goldfish.
The most-publicized college fad in history started on March 3, 1939, in the Harvard Union, when freshman Lothrop Withington, Jr., '42, goaded by a bet with his roomates, downed a goldfish never to be upped again. Pocketing a wager of $10 in good 1939 currency for his efforts, the Yardling thus ushered in a two-month period, which "Time Magazine called "among the maddest in the annals of U.S. Undergraduates."
As summed up by Withington, now a conservative businessman, "It was purely a case of mind over matter. I didn't mind, and the fish didn't matter." But the fish did matter to some. The Animal Rescue League was indignant about the situation and shortly thereafter, Massachusetts State Senator George Krapf filed a bill "to preserve the fish from cruel and wanton consumption."
Most of the reaction was favorable, however, and Withington still has a "trunkful" of fan letters and newspaper clippings. Job offers poured in, and he was subsequently elected to his class Smoker Comittee.
Among his correspondence Withington still cherishes a letter from a Kansas man who wrote. "If you ever want $10 that bad again, just let us know and we'll send it to keep you from becoming constipated."
But beneath the surface glamour, there was plenty of hard work and courage. Withington had practiced diligently at his Holworthy aquarium, starting with small fish and gradually working up to the four incher he swallowed at the Friday night Union performance.
In swallowing, Withington followed a definite plan. The Yardling's experimentation proved the immediate mastication process superior to the decisive gulp system, as the latter had to be followed instantly by a fish-killing beverage, like Union ice tea.
At this point, pioneer Withington dropped out of the business, although even today the incident follows him. He reports, "I've never been able to duck it, but I certainly don't regret it."
Taking over where Withington left off in March of '39 was Lowell House sophomore Irving M. Clark, Jr., '42. In 10 minutes, on the evening of March 26, Clark, clad in a Crimson sweater, gulped down 23 of the aquatic animals, his weight climbing from 158 to 165 in the process. During the sprint Clark paused only long enough to suck on an orange between fish. Circus offers followed, but the sophomore was uninterested, preferring to retain his "amateur standing."
The Boston papers naturally leapt on the story as an example of the decadent ways of Our College Youth. In the Boston Herald one Eva Williams Raymond burst into poetry thusly:
To end this paranoiac prank,
O Harvard, how I wish
You'd put the students in a tank
And graduate the fish!