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Mormon Firsts

LDS Living Staff - May 15, 2012

Who doesn't love fun trivia? Find out who created the first electronic television (a Mormon) and which movie star created the first support organization for little people (also a Mormon), along with other great firsts by Latter-day Saints.

Mitt Romney is positioned to become the first Mormon to appear at the top of a major party ticket in a presidential election, but he’s not actually the first Mormon to run for president (that was Joseph Smith). With such a historic event likely on the horizon, LDS Living decided to look back at some other great Mormon firsts. 

FIRST PUBLISHED LDS FICTION: Parley P. Pratt’s “A Dialogue between Joseph Smith and the Devil” (1844)

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When asked about LDS fiction, most people immediately think of authors like Dean Hughes, Jack Weyland, or Josi Kilpack (you can read her culinary mystery Lemon Tart on our site by clicking here). But the history of LDS fiction began over 150 years ago, starting with fledgling LDS members who were attempting to get the word out about Mormon doctrine and beliefs. Parley P. Pratt actively participated in this literary movement in the Church and became the first Mormon to publish a fiction-based work.

“A Dialogue between Joseph Smith and the Devil,” also referred to as “Joe Smith and the Devil,” was first published in the New York Herald in January 1844 after Pratt wrote it one afternoon in Northbridge, Massachusetts. The story gained some popularity and eventually spread to other American and  European papers. Pratt’s short story follows a conversation Joseph Smith has with the devil, a conversation that sets out why the devil will fail now that the true Church has been restored to the earth.

The conversation concludes with a stirring toast to the devil: “Here to his Satanic Majesty; may he be driven from the earth and be forced to put to sea in a stone canoe with an iron paddle, and may the canoe sink, and a shark swallow the canoe and its royal freight and an alligator swallow the shark and may the alligator be bound in the northwest corner of hell, the door be locked, key lost, and a blind man hunting for it.”

FIRST ELECTRONIC TELEVISION: Philo T. Farnsworth (1927)

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The concept of television had been inspiring scientists for years before Philo T. Farnsworth, at the age of 21, introduced his electronic television while working in San Francisco. As a teen, Farnsworth had shown interest in producing images electronically, even producing a sketch of his future work for a chemistry teacher in 1922. Farnsworth applied for a patent on the device in 1927, and years of improvements to his “image dissector” have given us the television of today.

Farnsworth was born in 1906 in Beaver, Utah, to a family that had settled in Utah after following Brigham Young and the Church. Young Farnsworth spent much of his youth engrossed in science magazines and novels. Following a stint at BYU, Farnsworth began to focus entirely on invention, and his career took off with relative rapidity. By the time of his death in 1971, he was credited with more than 300 U.S. and foreign patents.

Despite being the man responsible for the invention, Farnsworth later told his son concerning television: “There’s nothing on it worthwhile, and we’re not going to watch it in this household, and I don’t want it in your intellectual diet.”

FIRST FEMALE STATE SENATOR: Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon (1896)

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Photo of Martha Hughes Cannon retrieved from Utah State History Website.

The first female state senator, Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon, was actually born in Wales on July 1, 1857. Her parents, recent converts to the Church, moved the family to the Salt Lake Valley in 1860.

She met her future husband, Angus Cannon, also a physician, while working for Deseret Hospital. Following the birth of a daughter and some time spent abroad to avoid federal marshals looking for polygamists, she returned to Utah and became an advocate for public health and women’s suffrage.

Her fight for women’s rights culminated in a momentous Utah State Senate election in 1896—in which she ran as a Democrat at the same time her husband ran as a Republican. She won the seat in the state Senate—her husband didn’t. Cannon served two terms in the Senate, and though the election caused a temporary rift with her husband, they eventually reconciled. After her political career, she served on the Utah Board of Health and died in California in 1932. An eight-foot bronze statue of her was erected in the Utah Capitol Rotunda in 1996, 100 years after her groundbreaking election.

Paula Hawkins, the first woman elected to a full term in the United States Senate, was also LDS. When Hawkins, a Florida Republican, was elected in 1980, she became the first woman ever to be elected to a seat instead of appointed.


FIRST LDS OLYMPIC GOLD WINNER: Alma Richards (1912 Summer Olympics)

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Photo of Alma Richards courtesy of BYU Library.

Alma Richards dropped out of school when he was 14, but four years later, a nighttime conversation with Professor Thomas Trueblood motivated him to give the academic world a second try. He chose Murdock Academy, a private school for grades 9 through 12, located in Beaver, Utah.

One of his teachers asked Richards, the biggest kid in school, if he would join the track team. Richards knew little about athletics, but he joined the team, entering everything from the shot put to the discus to sprints. Soon, this “amateur” scored enough points to win the Utah state team championship for his school. Not long after this, coach Eugene Roberts discovered Richards’ ability to jump extraordinary heights and began working in depth with the natural athlete. Unsurprisingly, Richards made his way to Stockholm with the U.S. Olympic team in 1912 to compete in the men’s high jump.

Richards was a joke to the athletes on his team—none of them imagined he would have any success. They changed their minds when he easily cleared a bar raised to six feet, four inches high, and became one of two men still in the running for the gold medal. Before jumping for the gold, Richards knelt down and prayed for strength and success, if it was the Lord’s will. After he ended his prayer, he stood and went for the gold-winning jump, wowing the world. Richards never competed in the Olympics again, but his victory gave him the confidence he needed for a lifetime of success as a student, soldier, and teacher.

There have been a number of other LDS gold medalists, including Peter Vidmar, an animated gymnast who won two gold medals in the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, and Rulon Gardner in 2000, a wrestler who won gold after defeating Alexander Karelin, a Russian wrestler who had been undefeated for 13 years. Australian snowboarder Torah Bright also won gold in the women’s half-pipe in the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics after impressing the judges with her high-speed tricks.

FOUNDER OF LITTLE PEOPLE OF AMERICA: Billy Barty

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Photo of Billy Barty retrieved from Wikipedia/Braden Barty.

If you ever feel intimidated because of physical or mental limitations, just look to the inspiring life of Billy Barty, the three-foot-nine-inch actor you probably saw in Willow (or dozens of other movies in which he appeared). Barty, who died in 2000, grew up believing in himself and others, perhaps due to his parents’ belief in him. He is famously quoted as saying: “My parents never told me I was small, so I never knew any better. They had to sign for me to play football and basketball, but they never said, ‘No, you can’t. You’re too small.’”

Barty began acting at the young age of three and made his mark in the film business, appearing in films and television shows from 1927 to 2001, the year after his death.

In 1957, Barty gathered with a group of 20 other people “of short stature” in Reno, Nevada, and spent the week sharing ideas and hopes. During this historic meeting, Little People of America was founded. Barty established the organization in hopes of providing support and information for people of short stature and their families, as well as to dispel misunderstandings about little people. Over 50 years after its establishment, Little People of America continues to flourish with more than 6,000 members, 14 districts, and 70 chapters. 

FIRST SUCCESSFUL ARTIFICIAL HEART TRANSPLANT: Dr. William DeVries and Barney Clark 

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Dr. William DeVries in 2000.

On December 2, 1982, Dr. William DeVries and Barney Clark made medical history. Dr. DeVries, an LDS heart surgeon who had been granted permission from the United States Food and Drug Administration to implant the polyurethane Jarvik-7 artificial heart in humans, performed the first transplant on Barney Clark, who was also a Mormon. The operation was risky, but Clark, who suffered from congestive heart failure, decided to take the risk to help advance science. Clark didn’t expect to live more than a few days after the operation, but since doctors had determined he was too sick for a normal heart transplant, the artificial heart was his only hope for recovery. Clark’s health was poor after the operation, but he lived a longer-than-expected 112 days.

Clark had drifted away from the Church during his military service years before his heart transplant, but his family continued to attend. He encouraged his family to go to church but felt unworthy to join them because he smoked. When Clark began having heart problems, he had a spiritual awakening, leading him to return to the Church and become worthy to be sealed to his wife in the temple. After his death, that temple experience comforted his wife, Una Loy. “When I am lonely,” she said, “I think of that moment when I joined him in that sacred room, and I think that’s the way it will be when I join him in the next life.”


This article is an excerpt of "Mormon Firsts," published in the May/June 2012 issue of LDS Living. To learn more or purchase a copy, click here.
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© LDS Living, May/June 2012.
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