A Ph.D. Thesis Consists of Transferring Bones from One Graveyard to Another

J. Frank Dobie? Susan Riley? Joseph B. Mohr? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Performing scholarly research requires scrutinizing bibliographies carefully, retrieving tomes conscientiously, and examining text closely. Afterwards the researcher must construct a thorough bibliography for their own creative work. A wit crafted the following humorous description of the process:

Doctoral research is similar to moving old bones from one graveyard to another.

Would you please explore this saying?

Quote Investigator: In 1943 “The Saturday Evening Post” published an article titled “Maverick Professor” about University of Texas English Professor J. Frank Dobie who specialized in folklore and rural Texas. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

The mere fact that he is that rare phenomenon, a full professor without a Ph.D. degree, is enough to rile some of his fellow faculty members. Nor does his attitude exactly promote good will.

“I early learned,” he has said, “that a Ph.D. thesis consists of transferring bones from one graveyard to another.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1944 Dobie penned a piece for “The Saturday Evening Post”, and he included a different phrasing for the statement under examination: 2

Ph.D. worship in American universities and even in jerkwater colleges had destroyed casualness and substituted Ph.D. theses of Germanic methodicalness and turgidity for books of brightness. The average Ph.D. thesis is nothing but a transference of bones from one graveyard to another.

In 1948 English Professor Susan Riley of George Peabody College for Teachers addressed a meeting of Kentucky teachers. She criticized the incessant discussion of curriculum changes for U.S. schools, and she employed the metaphor: 3

Referring to curriculum changes as “the shifting of bones from one graveyard to another,” Dr. Riley added, “The basic trouble with American education is that we do not know for sure what we believe. If we ever determine that, the curriculum will fall speedily into place.”

In 1949 Reverend Joseph B. Mohr discussed his recent move from one house to another during which he had discarded many unneeded items from his attic and basement. He employed a simile that equated items in a filing cabinet with old bones: 4

But even then you take with you to your new home many dry bones, as it were—from one graveyard to another. And in your new house you store away those bones in a new resting place.

In my filing cabinet are hundreds and hundreds of ideas, clippings and notes which were bright and lively at one time, but which, as I look upon them now, have become dead, dry bones. They are without sinew and flesh.

In 1952 Dobie published a revised edition of his “Guide to Life and Literature of the Southwest”. He admitted that his guide was incomplete, and he discussed its strengths and weaknesses: 5

It is strong on the character and ways of life of the early settlers, on the growth of the soil, and on everything pertaining to the range; it is weak on information concerning politicians and on citations to studies which, in the manner of orthodox Ph.D. theses, merely transfer bones from one graveyard to another.

In 1953 a book reviewer in the “Los Angeles Times” examined Dobie’s guide and printed an instance variant instance of the saying: 6

Another thing: Mr. Dobie doesn’t like the word “bibliography.” This is a reading list, he notes, and no more; he just won’t have anything to do with a word that smacks of the old scholastic trade that he describes as “transferring bones from one graveyard to another.”

In 1958 the “Reader’s Digest Treasury of Wit and Humor” included the following entry: 7

I early learned that a Ph.D. thesis consists of transferring bones from one graveyard to another. —J. Frank Dobie

In 1960 a newspaper in Kentucky printed a variant with an anonymous attribution that used “moving” instead of “transferring”: 8

A thinker once observed that research is moving old bones from one graveyard to another.

In 1988 “The Dictionary of Outrageous Quotations” included the following version using “transference”: 9

‘The average PhD thesis is nothing but a transference of bones from one graveyard to another.’ – J. FRANK DOBIE

In conclusion, J. Frank Dobie should receive credit for this expression. He employed multiple phrasings, and the 1943 and 1944 citations present two of the earliest instances. This vivid figurative language was also employed in other domains.

Image Notes: Illustration of the bones of a human foot from “Human Anatomy” (1911), volume 1, third edition, edited by George A. Piersol, page 420.

(Great thanks to the anonymous scholar whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1943 September 11, The Saturday Evening Post, Maverick Professor by Jeanne Douglas and Liz Wharton, Start Page 14, Quote Page 61, Column 2, Saturday Evening Post Society, Inc., Indianapolis Indiana. (EBSCO MasterFILE Premier)
  2. 1944 September 30, The Saturday Evening Post, “How the Scoundrel Lied” by J. Frank Dobie, Start Page 22, Quote Page 108, Column 2, Saturday Evening Post Society, Inc., Indianapolis Indiana. (EBSCO MasterFILE Premier)
  3. 1948 November 9, The Greenville News, Lack Belief by Nicholas P. Mitchell, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Greenville, South Carolina. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1949 September 24, The Morning Call, The Morning Call Sermonette: Dry Bones in a Graveyard by Rev. Joseph B. Mohr, Quote Page 2, Column 4, Allentown, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1952, Guide to Life and Literature of the Southwest (Revised and enlarged) by J. Frank Dobie, Chapter 1: A Declaration, Quote Page 9, Southern Methodist University Press, Dallas, Texas. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1953 January 5, Los Angeles Times, Section 2, Bookman’s Notebook by Joseph Henry Jackson (Book review of “Guide to Life and Literature of the Southwest” (Updated) by J. Frank Dobie), Quote Page 5, Column 7 and 8, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1958, Reader’s Digest Treasury of Wit and Humor, Selected by the Editors of the Reader’s Digest, Topic: Higher Learning, Quote Page 423 Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., Pleasantville, New York. (Verified with scans)
  8. 1960 February 28, The Courier-Journal, Section 4, When Lawmakers Want Facts, L.R.C. Gets Them, Quote Page 1, Column 3, Louisville, Kentucky. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1988, The Dictionary of Outrageous Quotations, Compiled by C.R.S. Marsden, Section: Education, Quote Page 29, Salem House, Topsfield, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper)