MIT students at Camp Cunningham (1917)

This publicity photograph was taken at a summer camp in East Machias, Maine, called Camp Cunningham.  The camp was organized by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to provide military-style training to students after their sophomore year.  The decision to organize the camp was made after the United States entered World War I in April 1917.  I haven’t found any references to the camp in 1918, so it must have been discontinued after one summer.

The young men in the photo are identified on the back, along with their hometown.  All but two had home addresses in Massachusetts.

R.H. Gilbert – Needham – Fritz Boley – S. America + Cambridge – K.T. Lee – Canton, China – T.S. Sili – Canton, China – J. Mandelbam [Mandelbaum] – Lawrence – A. Stodder – Malden

The photo contains seven students, but only six names are listed, so it’s hard to be sure which men they refer to.

Also written on the back: Tech engineers, Camp Cunningham, East Machias, Me.  The word Tech is short for Technology, and is used as shorthand for the school (MIT).  So, Tech engineers means engineers from MIT.

MIT students at Camp Cunningham 2
Publicity photo by International Film Service, Inc., of New York City.  Click here to enlarge.


The most interesting thing about the image is the presence of two students from Canton (Guangzhou), China.  These two young men, K.T. Lee and T.S. Sili, probably enrolled in the camp in order to acquire skills and training that could prove useful after they returned to China.  It’s very likely that they were studying at MIT through the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship Program, a highly competitive program in China which paid the educational expenses of Chinese students studying in the United States.

Just to be clear, the young men in the photo were not serving in the U.S. military.  During World War I, the armed forces of the United States were segregated by race.  Asian Americans were categorized as “non-whites” and assigned to Asian-American units.  (By contrast, Native Americans were categorized as “white” and integrated into white units.)

There were 100 “sophomore volunteers” enrolled at Camp Cunningham.  I keep wondering why two students from China were selected for this publicity photo.  Maybe the university wanted to highlight its international reputation and present a diverse group of student engineers.  Maybe these seven students had excelled in competitions or leadership positions at the camp.

I looked for information online about the seven students.  I think J. Mandelbam was Joseph J. Mandelbaum (1900-1996), whose parents had immigrated from Poland (Russia).  At some point his family changed their surname to Mandell.

R.H. Gilbert was a bugler and the leader of the Technology Sophomore Military Band. 

I think Fritz Boley was Frederick William Boley (1897-1955), who attended MIT and whose mother lived in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  A student named Boley won a half-mile swimming race at Camp Cunningham on the Fourth of July.



Technology Review, Vol. 19 (1917).  Camp Cunningham is mentioned several times in this publication of the MIT Alumni Association, including a lengthy description of camp life on pages 446-455.

Family trees on  Accessed May 6, 2021.


36 thoughts on “MIT students at Camp Cunningham (1917)

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  1. I wonder why one name is missing. And what was the meaning of the handwritten note on the back: “US Germ War Colleges”? It’s always so interesting to have a glimpse into the past and learn something new.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. This photo came from the same newspaper archive as the photo in another post, Americans in Berlin celebrate Independence Day (WWI). I think the archive was connected to the Boston Herald. The photos seem to have been organized according to a keyword system. It would be interesting to know if they were ever published.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I just coincidentally submitted a poem to the MIT Technology Review. They seem to be a publication on tech issues now, so poetry is not their usual thing. Very interesting to see how international this camp was. But if most of the students were from Mass perhaps it had not yet acquired the vaulted reputation it has now. Nice snippet of wartime academic history!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Andrea! MIT must have had a very good international reputation at the time this photo was taken, because a significant number of Chinese students were enrolling there in the decades leading up to the Japanese invasion of Manchuria.

      I hope your poem is accepted!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. The Boxer Indemnity Scholarship Program was specifically oriented toward science and engineering. The Chinese government wanted the scholarship recipients to come back after their studies and work to modernize their homeland. Many of them did. Thank you, Jo Nell!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I think the names do read left to right. I found a photo of Fritz Boley on Ancestry and he looks like the fellow seated second from left, as the annotation would suggest.

      The man in the portrait on the wall might be Edward Cunningham ’91, for whom the camp was named. He died from illness at his home in March 1917. His widow gave very generously to his alma mater in the years afterward. Interestingly, he was born in Chefoo (Yantai), China. I wonder if he was a child of missionaries.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. My granddad went through the same MIT training program in 1919, although at different locations. I just looked through his photo album again, and he and his comrades were defiinitely on the immature side when it came to posing for snaphots.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. That’s such a coincidence, Liz! I seem to remember something about that on your genealogy blog, if I’m not mistaken. Feel free to post a link about him here if you want.

      Maybe they stopped going to East Machias because it’s a long way from anywhere!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it was very interesting. I didn’t even mention the fact that Chinese people were barred from immigrating to the US or becoming naturalized citizens between 1882 and 1943. This photo suggests what “might have been” if those discriminatory laws hadn’t existed.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. My suspicion is that Edward Cunningham’s personal connection to China may have been connected to the presence of the Chinese students in some way. He may have maintained connections to his birth country, and encouraged cross-cultural study. Most interesting to me was coming across Edward Cunningham IV’s current presence at MIT.
    Take a look at his CV. I couldn’t find biographical information, but I’d be willing to bet that there’s a connection with the camp-establishing Cunningham, especially given his focus on China and his presence at MIT.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Interesting! After you commented, I looked on Ancestry to see if there might be any clues about whether Edward A. Cunningham IV is related to Edward Cunningham (1869-1917). The latter did have a son, Edward Cunningham, Jr. (1893-1972), but beyond that I couldn’t tell.

      I hadn’t heard of the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship Program before. MIT seems to have played a major part in it. What an adventure those young men had, traveling all the way to Cambridge from China at a time when Chinese people weren’t allowed to immigrate. They must have felt very homesick.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. The other two writings on the back are quite fascinating. Whoever came into possession of this copyrighted photo must have added his suspicion about germ warfare. At that time the Rockefeller Institute was finalizing its China Medical Board, a vast enterprise involving tens of millions of dollars. So institutions like M.I.T., Johns Hopkins, etc. were likely recruiting bright foreign exchange type students. Also remember that various epidemics were ravaging actual military camps at the end of 1917. By 1918 the Great Influenza pandemic was spreading far and wide, and just as a precaution the university may have closed the student camp.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ah, I hadn’t considered influenza as a reason they might have closed the camp. That’s a great point. I just figured they could predict that the war would end soon and that sophomores wouldn’t be called up. I bet you’re right.

      About the word “Germ,” I suspect it’s just an abbreviation for German, as in “German War.” That was probably how people referred to it at the time, or one of the ways they referred to it. I should probably mention that in the post.

      Great comments, Mary Jo!

      Liked by 2 people

  6. I am very interested in what is in the hands of one of the students? Are they studying cartography? Should be fun judging by the faces presented on the photo!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. How my pain adled mind read what you wrote:

    “R.H. Gilbert was a BURGLAR and the leader of the Technology Sophomore Military Band.”

    How my mind reacted to what I thought you wrote. “Well…that was unexpected but he must have turned his life around because he became a band leader. I mean, they wouldn’t have let a known thief perform a position of authority. Huh.”

    Liked by 2 people

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