Last week I began to create a finding aid for the Allen Family Papers. From what I can tell so far, the majority of the collection seems to be Alfred Reginald Allen Sr.’s (1876-1918) correspondences with his father, son, wife, and other family members. Leslie Hunt, a former archivist at HSP, had painstakingly inventoried some of this collection back in 2001. Given that and considering that my processing of the collection would be an experiment in minimal processing (see Mark A.Greene and Dennis Meissner’s “More Product, Less Process” for more), I did not have the chance to really dig into this collection. However, what I could glean from this collection was an interesting story about the father and son relationships within this family.
Alfred Reginald Allen Sr. was a neurologist and neurosurgeon who earned his degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Allen also had a serious interest in musical theater. In his early adult life, he wrote numerous songs, some published, some not. He was also a founding member of the Savoy Company, a theater group that performed the works of Gilbert & Sullivan, which still exists today. However, Allen seems to have abandoned the theater world around 1907. His father, Rev. George Pomeroy Allen (1845-?) apparently exerted pressure on Alfred to focus exclusively on his medical pursuits. The previous archivist noted that this might have been because Alfred’s younger siblings, John Ernest and Nancy, were “free spirits” that caused the family much grief and that for this reason Rev. Allen pressured Alfred to be successful.
Before abandoning his theatrical pursuits entirely however, Alfred seemed to find a way to combine the theater and medical worlds. Here is a program for a medical-themed comic musical entitled “Evelyn and Harry” that Alfred wrote, scored, and acted in. “The American Neurological Association Comic Opera Company” presented the musical – perhaps this was a conglomerate of like-minded neurosurgeons?
One thing that from the musical that got a laugh out us was the number titled “I Want Your Brain and Spinal Cord.” Luckily, the collection contained the sheet music for this song.
In 1915 Alfred joined a reserve unit of the United States Army. In the summer of 1918 his reserve unit was called into action. Alfred wrote numerous letters to family first detailing his experiences at training camp, and then his experiences in the war-zone in France. From France he wrote a very sentimental letter to his son, Alfred Jr. (1905-1988), called Reggie in the family, in which he (perhaps realizing that there was a good chance he would not survive the war) instructs Reggie on how to be a man and also to follow whatever endeavors he wished. Reggie initially did not respond to this letter, and Alfred Sr. wrote a few letters to his wife asking why. Reggie, who was about 13 at this time, finally wrote back to his father explaining that he did not respond because the letter made him “feel so badly that I tried to forget it all.”
Sadly, Alfred Sr. never received this letter - he was killed in action in September 1918 during the Battle of Argonne. I can only imagine what young Alfred Jr. must have felt when this letter was returned to him marked “Killed in Action.”
However, Alfred Jr. seemed to take his father’s advice to heart. Perhaps following the path that his father could not take because of Alfred Sr.’s own father’s pressures, Alfred Jr. was much involved in the Philadelphia music community, eventually becoming General Manager of the Philadelphia Orchestra in the 1930’s.
This is another one of those interesting little stories that the collections at HSP have to tell. Uncovering these stories has been truly the most fascinating aspect of archival work for me. I hope to find (and share) many more!