Professor researches voices from the past

By David Hotle, The JOURNAL


It took decades for love letters from the 1840s to catch the interest of University of Iowa history professor David Nye, but when they did, he found himself wanting to learn as much as he could about the author.

Nye said that his grandmother had owned a hotel. At one point in the 1940s, a woman had died at the hotel and the letters were recovered. Nye was given the letters in the 1970s. The letters were from James Dudley Grey, originally from Ohio, who settled in Washington County in 1852 in Dutch Creek. Grey, a local doctor, later moved to near Talleyrand. For the past several days, Nye has researched Grey in the Washington Public Library genealogical library and has come away with a ream of papers that he plans to publish.

?At first I thought he was a great poet, but then I realized it was all quoted,? Nye said of Gray?s letters. ?That is what people did in those days. They were full of quotations and references to many interesting things. I began to realize he was an abolitionist.?

Nye?s specialty was in the history of science and technology, which earned him the 2005 Leonardo da Vinci Medal of the Society for the History of Technology. Previous books he has written all revolved around technology. He said this will be the first book on a subject he will write. He also said he would return after the book is published to present a copy to the library.

As he examined several of the papers he had found, Nye described Grey and explained he was a fascinating subject. In addition to being a doctor, Grey also worked as a publisher and as a lawyer. He opposed slavery in the United States and may have been part of the Underground Railroad in Ohio. Nye said that no part of the research would have openly said Grey helped the Underground Railroad as this was illegal so it would not have been spoken of openly. He also learned the love letters had been written to a cousin he hoped to marry, a practice which at the time did not have the stigma it does today. Nye said the cousin had married someone else.

Nye said Grey had worked as a printer at the Burlington Hawkeye and attended the state medical school in Keokuk before coming to Washington County. In working as a lawyer, Nye said Grey had worked on some cases that had gone to the state supreme court.

Nye said area people who have information about Grey could email him at