It began in 1931 as a diversion to take our minds off the Great Depression. For a day, at least, Baltimoreans could forget their woes and cheer the bevy of box turtles engaged in a whimsical race on the grounds of Johns Hopkins Hospital.
On July 28, egged on by 300 doctors, nurses and patients, 20 turtles slogged off, willy-nilly, from the center of a chalk-drawn circle on the hospital’s clay tennis court, supposedly heading toward the finish 30 feet away. Each turtle represented a different hospital unit; the winner, Sir Walter, neurosurgery’s own, poked his head across the line in a leisurely 55 seconds.
The annual Johns Hopkins Hospital Turtle Derby was off and running — a celebrated event that continued until 1994, minus a break during World War II. For many years, the Derby thrived, drawing crowds of up to 5,000 and as many as 270 entries from as far off as Europe and Great Britain. Routinely, the hospital’s own turtles bore names akin to their respective units, such as “Expecting” (obstetrics), “Double Vision” (opthamology) and “Adenoids” (nose and throat).
Noting the interest, The Sun reported the races, as in the 1933 classic between “Panic” (the psychiatric clinic entry) and “Fragments” (orthopedics):
“Fragments started out as though he meant business, darting to within a yard of the finish while most of the racers were wandering aimlessly in circles. But as photographers rushed to the sidelines ... the turtle stopped, cocked his head jauntily to one side of his shell and waited for his picture to be taken. Meanwhile, the persevering Panic quietly crossed the line.”
The Turtle Derby had all the pageantry of a horse race. The critters’ shells bore the painted colors of their “stables,” while their numbers appeared on flags stuck with putty to their backs. Printed race cards described the entrants; parimutuel betting stands served the crowd, and bookies, dressed in brown derbies and plaid pants, mingled with onlookers. In early years, a starter’s pistol began the race (in years to come, a tuba blast seemed more appropriate) as a brass band played and a breathless announcer called each excruciating second of action.
To the winner went a gold colostomy cup filled with $50 in nickels and, by 1950, a bouquet of black-eyed Susans in the shape of a turtle. The $5 entry fees benefitted hospital charities.
Early on, rumors of subterfuge plagued the Turtle Derby. Were entrants being drugged or even kidnapped beforehand? “Foul Play in the Paddocks,” screamed a headline in The Sun in 1935. Race officials responded by introducing a snapping turtle into the pre-race holding pen in the hospital’s courtyard. In 1937, in a preemptive move, the hospital’s X-ray department rigged cameras to settle any dispute of a photo finish.
While the event caught the fancy of hospital personnel and the public, it was the patients at Hopkins Hospital who got the biggest kick. Those on crutches and in wheelchairs attended, amid the snack and lemonade stands, while others watched from the windows of their rooms.
Interrupted during World War II, the race returned in 1947 when a turtle named Ulcers triumphed. But in the 1950s, the event morphed into a spectacle, adding political skits, satire and even ribaldry to turn a simple pastime into more of a fraternity bash.
In 1978, the Turtle Derby officially succumbed, “a victim of apathy,” The Sun reported. It limped on for a time — one year, children dressed in turtle costumes ran the race, then snacked on turtle-shaped sugar cookies — but the end was nigh.
The final Derby took place in 1994, as a smattering of hospital staffers and patients cheered the 40 reptilian contestants, who’d been rented from a biology laboratory in New Jersey and then shipped back by overnight express.