John Scopes was the defendant in the 1925 case State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, a landmark in the contentious history of evolution education in the United States.
Scopes was born on August 3, 1900, in Paducah, Kentucky. Following a brief stint at the University of Illinois at Urbana, he enrolled at the University of Kentucky at Lexington, where in 1922 he witnessed his professors successfully lobby against a proposed antievolution bill in the Kentucky legislature. After receiving a BA in law in 1924, he accepted a position coaching football and teaching algebra, physics, and chemistry at Central High School in Dayton, Tennessee.
In Tennessee, teaching evolution in public schools and universities was prohibited by the Butler Act, enacted on March 21, 1925. Wishing to challenge the law, the American Civil Liberties Union offered to represent anyone willing to be the defendant in a test case. Sensing the opportunity to publicize their town, a group of Dayton civic leaders approached Scopes. Although he was unsure whether he had actually taught evolution, he disapproved of the Butler Act and consented to be involved. He was arrested on May 5 and indicted on May 25, 1925.
The case became a media circus, with national figures such as William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow commanding the spotlight; during the preparation for the trial, a reporter commented, “Poor little Scopes was almost forgotten.” In the trial itself (July 10-21), the defense stipulated that Scopes taught evolution. “So I sat speechless,” he later observed, “a ringside observer at my own trial, until the end of the circus.” After he was found guilty and fined $100, he spoke for the only time during the trial, calling the statute unjust and pledging to continue to oppose it. On January 14, 1927, his conviction was overturned on appeal on a technicality, and the state’s attorney general declined to prosecute him again.
After the trial, Scopes enrolled in the PhD program in geology at the University of Chicago. Owing to his notoriety, he was refused a fellowship in 1927; the fellowship’s administrator advised him to take his “atheistic marbles and play elsewhere.” Turning to commercial work, he worked for Gulf Oil of South America for three years, mainly in Venezuela, where he married Mildred Walker in 1930. To please his bride, he converted to Roman Catholicism, but remained an agnostic; the couple had two children.
Returning to the University of Chicago in 1930, Scopes began work on his dissertation, but was prevented from completing it by financial woes. He worked as a geologist for the United Production Corporation, later the United Gas Corporation, from 1933 to 1964. In 1960, he was persuaded to help in promoting the film Inherit the Wind, a cinematic version of the 1955 play loosely based on the trial, in which Scopes is represented by the character Bertram Cates. His memoirs, published in 1967, aided in the repeal of the Butler Act the same year. He died in Shreveport, Louisiana, on October 21,1970.
- Larson, E. (1997). Summer for the gods: The Scopes trial and America’s continuing debate over science and religion. New York: Basic Books.
- Scopes, J. T., & Presley, J. (1967). Center of the storm: Memoirs of John T. Scopes. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.