Spring 2013 Newsletter | Biology | Marquette University



Dr. James Barrett– MU Faculty from 1951-1986

During his 35 year career as a faculty member in the Biology Department at Marquette, Dr. James Barrett was known for his engaging teaching and social justice activism.

Dr. James BarrettDuring his 35 year career as a faculty member in the Biology Department at Marquette, Dr. James Barrett was known for his engaging teaching and social justice activism.
Born on July 4th, 1920, in western Wisconsin, James Barrett lived most of his life in West Allis, WI. He attended Holy Assumption Grade School there, and graduated Marquette University High School in 1938. He worked as a semi-skilled laborer at Kearney & Trecker Corp. in West Allis before serving in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II. James Barrett was a devoted family man, and he and his wife Mary had five children, Margaret Mary, Kathleen, Patrick, James, and Mary Eileen.

Barrett was an aviation ordnance technical sergeant with a Marine Corp. Corsair fighter squadron, and was at Okinawa in April of 1945. He was responsible for guns, bombs and rockets. While there, Barrett happened to pick up a piece of wood on the ground that contained Japanese writing on it and kept it as a souvenir. The piece turned out to be an official document –a license to operate a horse-drawn bus. Many years later, Barrett showed it to a friend who had a Japanese wife, and discovered that the piece of wood actually belonged to her relative. That relative’s family had lost most of their possessions during the war, and were moved to tears with the rediscovery of this document. Barrett was invited to Okinawa in 1998, 53 years after the battles, this time as their honored guest.

After his military service, Barrett returned to Marquette University where he earned his B.S. (1947) and M.S. (1949) in Zoology. Barrett earned his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois, Urbana in 1953 as a Zoology major, with Biochemistry and Physiology minors. Fr. Raymond Reis, S.J. states in his 1950 chair’s report on the Biology Department at Marquette that he would like to recruit Barrett as soon as he finished his doctorate. Reis notes that Barrett was a very gifted young man, who promised to be a fine teacher and researcher. Barrett was hired in 1951 as an instructor at Marquette University, and promoted to Assistant Professor in 1955.

Dr. James BarrettAs a scientist, Barrett’s interests were in the cell biology, taxonomy, behavior, and morphology of protozoa, but Barrett’s real contribution to the Biology Department were his teaching skills. As the department became a modern biology department, the undergraduate curriculum needed to be updated. It was Barrett who organized and directed the new General Biology courses introduced in 1959. He continued to teach these courses throughout his career, touching the lives of thousands of Marquette undergraduates. Class sizes were routinely over 500 students, and were conducted in the Varsity Theater. He also regularly taught a course on the Biology of Invertebrates, as well as advising the honors program. Barrett was beloved by his students for his sympathetic approach, his devotion to their interests, and the time he was willing to give them. In 1986, Barrett was awarded the Faculty Award for Teaching Excellence, where he was honored for a “demonstrated ability to inspire students to seek the ideals of the university, and to cause them to grow in knowledge and scholarship for the glory of God and the good of their fellow men.”

Another significant achievement in Barrett’s career was the publication of a 1,168 page introductory biology text book. Published in 1985 by Prentice-hall, the work took over 10 years, and was a joint venture with fellow faculty members Drs. Peter Abramoff, A. Krishna Kumaran, and William Millington.

Dr. James Barrett

Dr. Barrett lectures about cell biology in 1957

Barrett held a strong conviction for the importance of social justice. Inspired by papal encyclicals on social justice that he read in high school, Barrett served more than 50 years with nearly every peace group, civil liberties organization and civil rights group imaginable. He crossed the racial gap early on, raising money for the 1955 Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, and he worked with Southern Service Projects to send money and supplies for voter registration and education in the 1960’s. Barrett also worked with Marquette’s role in urban Milwaukee, fair housing initiatives, and served as an Executive Committee Commissioner for the Governor’s Commission on Human Rights –among many other organizations and causes. Even after his retirement from Marquette in 1986, Barrett continued his activism, forming a local chapter of Pledge of Resistance in 1984, and he continued publishing a newsletter about U.S. Foreign Policy for this group into the late 1990’s.

Barrett felt that “university faculty members have a responsibility to provide leadership in civic and moral matters affecting the community”. To this end, Barrett helped to form campus organizations at Marquette to explore civil rights and political issues. The Marquette Faculty Association for Interracial Justice sought to educate students, faculty and the community in regard to the principles and problems of interracial justice and their implications. The Pere Marquette Political Organization was a voluntary non-partisan group of Marquette faculty and staff members formed to promote the education, interest and involvement of members of the Marquette community in political matters at the local, regional and national levels.

For Barrett, to stay out of the political process was nothing less than an abdication of a sacred responsibility. As he states in a 1964 address to the members of Marquette’s chapter of Sigma Xi, “In a day when we can seriously plan to put a man on the moon and bring him back, we should also be able to provide the opportunity for a meaningful existence for all human beings.” On many occasions, he encouraged others, especially members of the University to become informed and to become involved in the affairs of the world.

James Barrett died on October 1st, 2000. He was to receive the Wisconsin Council of Senior Citizens award the week he died. The planned ceremony instead became an opportunity to honor Barrett’s memory, and he was remembered by Chris Ahmuty, the director of the Wisconsin chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union as “the teacher whose own life was the best possible lesson for his students”. Barrett’s son, Patrick, delivered a moving address on the occasion, based on his father’s notes where he considered his motivations. Patrick Barrett concluded that his father was motivated by a simple sense of duty to do right, and to hear and respond to the call of justice.





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