Finney, John M. T.

Finney, John M. T. 1884 (1863-1942), was the only person ever to play football for both Princeton and Harvard. He was an end on the Princeton varsity his senior year and held the same position on the Harvard varsity during his first year at the Harvard Medical School. (The rule restricting eligibility to undergraduates had not yet been adopted.)

In Princeton's victory over Harvard his senior year, Finney scored Princeton's only touchdown. At the Harvard Medical School he abstained from playing against Princeton.

A scrappy player, Finney's hard tackle of a back in the Yale game his senior year led to an exchange of unpleasantries. The following week the Police Gazette asked Finney for his photograph to include with John L. Sullivan's in a gallery of ``the leading exponents of the manly art of self-defense,'' but Finney did not avail himself of this honor. ``I got credit,'' he later recalled, ``for a lot of slugging that was going on around me, in which I had no other part than that of peacemaker.''

Finney gave up football after his first season with Harvard in order to do justice to his medical studies. On receiving his M.D. and completing his internship at Massachusetts General Hospital, he went to Baltimore, where as professor of surgery he was associated with men like William H. Welch, Sir William Osler, and William S. Halsted in developing the great medical school and hospital at Johns Hopkins. Finney specialized in surgery of the alimentary canal, for which he devised a number of important operative techniques.

As chief consultant in surgery for the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I, Finney organized new methods for administering surgical aid to the wounded at the front, and was decorated by the United States, France, and Belgium. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Colleges of Surgeons of England, of Ireland, and of Edinburgh, and in 1932 was awarded the Bigelow gold medal, one of the highest honors in surgery in this country. He was a founder and first president of the American College of Surgeons. He was also president of the American Surgical Association and of the Society of Clinical Surgery. He pioneered in the recruitment and training of black surgeons.

The son of a clergyman, he served as vice-moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, and was a trustee of Lincoln University and of the Princeton Theological Seminary. He was cited for his contributions to better understanding among Catholics, Protestants, and Jews.

Finney was elected a life trustee of Princeton in 1910 just before Woodrow Wilson resigned as president. He so impressed his colleagues by ``his simple honesty of thought, speech and action'' that less than two years later they invited him to be president. Finney knew the need was great (the Board, divided by the Wilson-West dispute, had previously had trouble agreeing on a candidate) and his loyalty to Princeton put him under great pressure to accept. ``His mental anguish,'' said a colleague at Johns Hopkins, ``was plain to see.'' But in the end, his innate love of medicine, and the obligation he felt to the young doctors under his guidance, prevailed. ``After a most careful consideration from every point of view,'' he wrote, ``I feel that I am better fitted for the work which I am now doing and that I should remain in Baltimore where my work is not yet done.'' Soon thereafter Finney and John W. Barr 1885, a newcomer to the board also not identified with either the Wilson or the West faction, used their balance of power to elect John Grier Hibben as president.

As chairman of the Trustees' Committee on Health and Athletics, Finney helped to plan the present McCosh Infirmary, to secure its staff, and to set its tone, consistent with his personal philosophy, as a place where the human as well as the scientific aspects of medicine were emphasized. He also helped in the development of the University's intramural and intercollegiate athletic programs.

The gentle Wordsworth scholar, George McLean Harper, Finney's closest friend in the Class of 1884, had a more rounded view of Finney's manly qualities than the Police Gazette had had. Finney's manliness, Professor Harper wrote in a memorial for the Alumni Weekly, ``was compounded of many elements: physical strength and vitality, intellectual vigor and versatility, moral purity, social warmth, and loving-kindness.'' After reviewing Finney's professional and civic achievements and his many acts of self-sacrifice and charity, Harper concluded: ``We, his classmates, bow our hearts in thankfulness for a life so noble.''

Two of Finney's sons, John M. T. Finney, Jr. '15 and George G. Finney '21 became surgeons also. George Finney and his son, Redmond C. S. Finney '51 were trustees of Princeton, too.

Finney Field, used for football and lacrosse, was given in his memory by his family in 1957.


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

Go to Search A Princeton Companion