Several times a week, I walk past the "All Wars Memorial to Penn Alumni", on the east side of 33rd Street in front of the Palestra, which features a group of statues surrounding a flagpole:
Behind these impressive figures there's a curved wall bearing the inscription:
The University of Pennsylvania
1740 To her sons who died in the service of their country 1950
A brood of sturdy men who stood for freedom and for truth
The freedom and truth part sounds good, but the "brood of study men" has always struck me wrong. It's been 40 years since I got out of the U.S. Army, but I'm pretty sure that referring to my fellow G.I.s as "a brood of sturdy men" would have been a reliable way to start a bar fight. Today's volunteer soldiers may be better behaved than we draftees were, but I suspect that the reaction would still be a negative one.
The OED agrees with me, glossing brood as
Progeny, offspring, young.
a. esp. of animals that lay eggs, as birds, serpents, insects, etc. a brood: a family of young hatched at once, a hatch.
b. of cattle or large animals. Obs.
c. Of human beings: family, children. (Now generally somewhat contemptuous.)
This entry has not been updated since 1888, so the negative or at least un-military connotations are nothing new.
And in the Google Books ngram corpus, the fifteen commonest nouns for the context "brood of ___" are children, chickens, vipers, chicks, larvae, ducklings, Folly, caterpillars, ducks, evils, hell, moths, serpents, eggs, and worms. Again, not a great set of resonances for military service.
Passing over in silence, for now, the fact that some of the statues around the flagpole are clearly female, I've wondered for some time where the whole "brood of study men" thing came from, and so in honor of Veteran's Day, I thought I'd find out.
A bit of web search turned up the answer — in the Proceedings of "University Day", February 22, 1902 ("University Day" being a celebration that Penn used to hold annually on Washington's Birthday), I found a long poem by Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, entitled "The Birthday of Washington", which starts like this:
God of the nations! Thou whose hand
Led forth their best across the sea,
To find in this unfettered land
Thy largest gift — the soul set free.
It ends, 27 stanzas later, with this:
Here shall the mother, at whose knee
They heard the words that guide and guard,
Glad of her children, proudly see
In noble lives, her best reward!
And as Dr. Mitchell heads into the home stretch, we get
Hail! Gracious Mother! Thou whose youth
Sent forth a brood of sturdy men,
Who stood for freedom and for truth,
And used the sword to free the pen.
Still ever in thy learned walls
The will, the wish, the vigor live!
Ay ready, if our country calls,
To meet what fate may duty give.
According to Mitchell's Wikipedia entry,
In 1863 he wrote a clever short story, combining physiological and psychological problems, entitled "The Case of George Dedlow", in the Atlantic Monthly. Thenceforward, Mitchell, as a writer, divided his attention between professional and literary pursuits. In the former field, he produced monographs on rattlesnake poison, on intellectual hygiene, on injuries to the nerves, on neurasthenia, on nervous diseases of women, on the effects of gunshot wounds upon the nervous system, and on the relations between nurse, physician, and patient; while in the latter, he wrote juvenile stories, several volumes of respectable verse, and prose fiction of varying merit, which, however, gave him a leading place among the American authors of the close of the 19th century. His historical novels, Hugh Wynne, Free Quaker (1897), The Adventures of François (1898) and The Red City (1909), take high rank in this branch of fiction.
Nine of his prose works are in the Project Gutenberg collection, but in none of them does the word brood occur as a noun (the verb to brood, as in "He wished to be left by himself to brood over the cruel wrong of the morning", occurs twice). So I guess that Mitchell used brood in that 1902 poem because it sounded good, and his conventional poetic archaism rendered him temporarily deaf to its connotations.
His work as a physician has also made its way into the annals of literature:
He was Charlotte Perkins Gilman's doctor and his use of a rest cure on her provided the idea for "The Yellow Wallpaper", a short story in which the narrator is driven insane by her rest cure.
His treatment was also used on Virginia Woolf, who wrote a savage satire of it: "you invoke proportion; order rest in bed; rest in solitude; silence and rest; rest without friends, without books, without messages; six months rest; until a man who went in weighing seven stone six comes out weighing twelve."
Anyhow, here's a plug for the Veterans @ Penn organization. If you're in the Philadelphia area, you might want to come to the flag raising ceremony tomorrow morning at 8:30.