Grace Macurdy of Vassar College: Scholar, Teacher, and Proto-Feminist

This is a guest post by Robert L. Pounder

Robert L. Pounder, Emeritus Professor of Classics at Vassar College, here contributes a review of Barbara McManus’s posthumous book about Grace Harriet Macurdy, titled The Drunken Duchess of Vassar. Pounder, who has been conducting in-depth research on the social history of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA) in the 1920s-1930s, writes that Classics was “dominated by unaware, myopic, smug, unsympathetic men, men who viewed academic accomplishment by women with condescension and skepticism.”  Women in academia, like Macurdy, were thought to be anomalies–a different species. Based on his work at the ASCSA Archives, Pounder has also published an essay, “The Blegens and the Hills: A Family Affair,” in Carl W. Blegen: Personal & Archaeological Narratives, ed. N. Vogeikoff-Brogan, J. L. Davis, and V. Florou, Atlanta 2015.

Born in 1866 in Robbinston, Maine, Grace Harriet Macurdy was the sixth of nine siblings whose parents had immigrated to the United States from the nearby Canadian province of New Brunswick just a year before her birth. Her father, Angus McCurdy (the spelling of the name was later changed to Macurdy because he did not want to be thought Irish) was a carpenter who barely eked out a living.  After leaving his children in the care of their mother and paternal grandmother for long periods and thus improving his situation somewhat, he was able to move the family to Watertown, Massachusetts by 1870; there they grew.  Watertown provided a better series of houses and slightly improved material circumstances for the Macurdy children.  Moreover, they profited greatly from the guidance of their mother and grandmother, both of whom encouraged the children, including the girls, to read, write, and pursue their educations.

Barbara McManus, The Drunken Duchess of Vassar, Columbus: The Ohio State University Press (2017).

There arose from this unlikely beginning one of the most distinguished, if not suitably recognized, American classicists of the 20th century.  The life of this scholar and teacher forms the inspiration for an exemplary biography by the late Barbara McManus, herself an important classicist. McManus has composed a study of Grace Macurdy’s life and career that enriches our knowledge of the history of classical scholarship in America and Great Britain.  It also broadens our understanding of the social contexts that shaped the study and teaching of Greek and Roman antiquity in the early 20th century, shedding fresh light on the challenges that women scholars faced in order to be taken seriously in a field dominated by unaware, myopic, smug, unsympathetic men, men who viewed academic accomplishment by women with condescension and skepticism.  The relative obscurity of Grace Macurdy today, even among scholars in her field, attests to the long and rocky road that women scholars had to follow in the 20th century – in the U.S., England, and Europe alike – with no guarantee that excellence and innovation would be rewarded or even noticed.  McManus addresses this issue head-on, pointing out that, even into the 20th century, women scholars were viewed by the academic establishment as anomalies, even as oddities, a different species, weaker personages who tried but could not equal the intellectual achievements of men. To illustrate: when a Festschrift comprising twenty-two articles was published to honor Macurdy’s dear friend, the British classicist Gilbert Murray (who claimed to admire her work), every one of the twenty-two authors was a man (Greek Poetry and Life, Essays Presented to Gilbert Murray On His Seventieth Birthday, 1936).  These men believed that the natural state of women was as wives and mothers, not as leaders in business or politics or the academy. This state of affairs had grown out of 19th- century attitudes, and it would take many decades, into the 1970s and the women’s movement, for the foundations of such beliefs to start crumbling, a process that has not ended but continues to this day.

Grace Macurdy (1866-1946) showed promise from her childhood years onward.  By 1879 she had advanced in her studies to the point where she could enroll in Watertown High School’s college-preparatory course. There she studied English, French, history, mathematics, chemistry, physics, and – significantly – Greek and Latin, in which last subjects she particularly excelled.  The next step was application to the “Harvard Annex” – renamed Radcliffe College in 1894 – a private program that offered women  instruction, by Harvard professors, equivalent to that received by men at Harvard College.  In 1884, after three days of Harvard entrance examinations, she passed without any conditions, achieving honors in classics.  Grace entered the Annex in September 1884.  Her performance placed her at the top of her class.  As McManus points out, Macurdy did not share the ambitions of most of her fellow students, who aspired to teaching positions in New England schools: “She was determined to win recognition as a classical scholar with a professional career like her Harvard mentors.”  And she miraculously did not suffer the pangs of uncertainty and self-doubt – engendered by ambivalent attitudes of many of the Harvard professors toward the higher education of women — that afflicted many of her friends.  Helen A. Stuart, class of 1891, wrote to a friend:

It was always impressed upon us that we must be inconspicuous, and must never cross the Harvard Yard, unless we were attending some special lecture or reading…As to the relations between Harvard and the Annex, it was borne in upon us very frequently that the University as a whole scorned us, and only the broad-minded professors were really interested in our success.  The students in general thought of us as unattractive bluestockings and compared us unfavorably with the Wellesley girls.

Ironically, McManus observes, Grace Macurdy’s working-class background helped her to conquer this sort of self-doubt and ambivalence.  Her family had to scrimp and save, and they lacked the niceties of life, including social status and interactions, except within their modest circle.  Grace “could not afford ambivalence,” since “success was her only option.”  In 1893 she was hired by Professor Abby Leach to teach in the Greek department at Vassar College.

Abby Leach (1855-1918).

Thus began the remarkable career of Grace Macurdy as scholar, teacher, and proto-feminist.  Her charismatic personality and sparkling intelligence captivated students, bringing her popularity within the Vassar community.  Abigail (Abby) Leach, a formidable figure who had been the initiating force behind the establishment of the Harvard Annex, was revered by Macurdy, but not to the same degree by students, many of whom found her an uninspired, rote teacher.  One of them, Margaret Shipp, Vassar 1905, wrote home: “Miss Leach may know a lot and be very famous, but she is absolutely the most uninteresting instructor I ever came across… She is about as flexible as a wooden post.”  But Leach was a formidable figure at Vassar.

Hired in 1883, she had singlehandedly built up the Greek department, an offshoot of the former Department of Ancient Languages, and after having taught many Latin courses for several years, by 1886 was in charge of all the courses in Greek, now a separate department, “my” department, as she referred to it in an early conversation with Macurdy. Upon her arrival, Macurdy was given the freshman and sophomore Greek courses to handle, though the upper level work was reserved for Professor Leach (who did not like to be referred to as “Miss”). At first, Abby Leach offered strong support to Macurdy, urging her to take a year off to study in Berlin and elsewhere in 1899-1900.  Upon her return, Macurdy was advised by Leach to enroll in the doctoral program at Columbia.  There she spent two highly productive years that produced a dissertation on the chronology of the plays of Euripides, and her PhD was conferred in 1903; Vassar immediately promoted her to associate professor of Greek.

With clarity and precision, Barbara McManus presents the story of the conflict between Leach and Macurdy that began soon after Macurdy’s return to teaching.  Alarmed by Macurdy’s growing popularity in the classroom and by the recognition she was receiving outside the walls of Vassar, Leach invented numerous excuses to hold her back and prevent her from teaching advanced courses. She dreamed up dubious charges of poor or negligent teaching. It was a classic case of jealousy and envy.  Leach felt threatened: Greek was her department, and an upstart was undermining her authority, or so she thought.  In 1907 she recommended that Macurdy be fired.  The Vassar president, James Monroe Taylor, was drawn into the battle,which was waged for another decade, and so were the Committee on Faculty and Studies of the Board of Trustees and the next president, Henry Noble MacCracken.  Despite the angry opposition of Leach, Macurdy’s demonstrated achievements resulted in several reappointments in this period, which came to an end only with Abby Leach’s death in 1918.

James Monroe Taylor and Henry Noble MacCracken, Presidents of Vassar College, 1915. Source: ASCSA Archives, Ida Thallon Hill Papers.

As the years went on, Grace Macurdy’s career blossomed.  As was mentioned above, she became a good friend of the Oxford classicist Gilbert Murray and his wife. She also entered into a friendship with another British classicist, J.A.K. Thomson, with whom she corresponded and traveled.  The relationship with Thomson was close but probably not a conventionally romantic one;  rather it was borne of deep and sympathetic intellectual affinity. Thomson, thirteen years her junior, a King’s College, London classicist with Marxist leanings, translator of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and author of popularizing works such as The Classical Background of English Literature, probably clicked with Macurdy in part because of shared leftist politics. Both Murray and Thomson became important soulmates for Macurdy, forming a sort of family for her in England.

Barbara McManus (1942-2015)

Macurdy became the Vassar representative on the Managing Committee of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (although she had not studied at the School).  In that capacity she was drawn into the feud between the director, Bert Hodge Hill, and the chair of the Managing Committee, Edward Capps, a battle that was waged in the mid-1920s and ended with the dismissal of Hill, who had been director since 1906.  Macurdy fought on the side of Hill and his wife Ida Thallon Hill (Vassar 1897), her former student and now intimate friend, and bravely spoke out in Managing Committee meetings against the campaign to impugn Hill and his directorship. The quarrel had grown out of Capps’s irritation with Hill’s slowness to publish assigned material from Corinth and the Athenian acropolis as well as his failure to provide timely reports to the Managing Committee about School excavations and activities, reports that were needed for Capps’s growing fundraising initiatives.  A triumph of Barbara McManus’s biography is her masterly analysis of the voluminous materials that document the Capps vendetta.  Housed in the American School archives, these letters, cables, copies of petitions, memoranda, official minutes and reports, and other documents present challenges to anyone attempting to make sense of the twists and turns of what happened.  McManus gives us a clear interpretation, and she also corrects mistakes present in earlier publications. Her achievement in writing about the Women’s Hostel controversy at the American School – it ended with the construction of Loring Hall, a residence for both sexes – is equally impressive. Her scholarly method is meticulous and exhaustive, the results always easy to follow (see also N. Vogeikoff-Brogan, “Clash of the Titans: The Controversy Behind Loring Hall“).  The premature death of this scholar is a blow to classical scholarship; her quiet role in the advancement of classical studies is now seen as an essential one, too soon ended.

The life of Grace Macurdy had its share of heartbreak and misfortune.  A mysterious ailment caused the loss of most of her hearing in both ears  in the early 1920s.  This disability she managed to deal with, using ear trumpets and other methods, until her death. The deaths of family members over the years brought sadness, but this remarkably chipper, wry woman surmounted all obstacles to happiness and serenity.  Her books, Hellenistic Queens: A Study of Woman-Power in Macedonia, Seleucid Syria, and Ptolemaic Egypt (1932) and Vassal-Queens and Some Contemporary Women in the Roman Empire (1937) were met with appreciative and, in a few instances, glowing reviews (though there was a tendency among her fellow ancient historians to regard powerful women in the Hellenistic and Roman Mediterranean as tangential figures, scarcely worthy of serious study).  Her final book, The Quality of Mercy: The Gentler Virtues in Greek Literature (1940) returned her to the literary roots of her dissertation.  Following her retirement from Vassar in 1937, Macurdy continued to write and to play an active role in such institutions as the American School of Classical Studies.  As her health declined, life became more difficult, especially owing to a deterioration in her sight that a costly and difficult eye operation failed to cure.  She died in Poughkeepsie in 1946.

One of Grace Macurdy’s books. ASCSA, Blegen Library.

Barbara McManus has unearthed unexpected and intriguing nuggets about Macurdy. For instance, although her immediate background was working-class, her ancestors in Canada and the United States included many eminences; indeed, she was a distant relative of both Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (an appendix provides her family tree).  She herself formed some surprising friendships, such as those with the novelist John Galsworthy and the poet John Masefield, men who were drawn to her charm and magnetic intelligence.  Only now is her importance coming to the fore, and we have McManus to thank for that.  A final quibble: the title of the biography seems off-base to me.  An affectionate nickname applied to the teetotaling Macurdy by her adoring students — who were bent on capturing her whimsical eccentricity – the flippant term “drunken duchess” undermines the seriousness of the biographical subject.  Fortunately, it cannot undermine the laudable achievement of the biographer.

An African American Pioneer in Greece: John Wesley Gilbert and the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1890-1891.

Posted by John W. I. Lee

John W. I. Lee, Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara, here contributes an essay about John W. Gilbert, the first African-American student to participate in the Regular Program of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA) in 1890-1891. Lee is writing a book about John Wesley Gilbert, the early history of the ASCSA, and the development of archaeology in Greece.

In his official report to the Managing Committee of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter) for academic year 1890-1891, Director Charles Waldstein praised students Carleton Brownson, Andrew Fossum, John Gilbert, and John Pickard, who had “proved themselves serious and enthusiastic” throughout the year.  Waldstein went on to describe the School’s 1891 excavations at ancient Eretria on the island of Euboea.  While Fossum and Brownson excavated Eretria’s theater, Pickard and Gilbert “undertook the survey and careful study of all the ancient walls of the city and acropolis, and will produce a plan and an account which… will be of great topographical and historical value.”

Waldstein’s report gives no indication that one of the students, John Gilbert, was African American—the first African American scholar to attend the ASCSA.  With the passage of time, memory of Gilbert’s pioneering contribution was forgotten at the School, until Professor Michele Valerie Ronnick of Wayne State University searched for him in the ASCSA Archives in the early 2000s.  Ronnick’s work on Gilbert, featured in the School’s Ákoue Newsletter, forms the foundation of my research.

John Wesley Gilbert. Photo: Daniel W. Culp, Twentieth Century Negro Literature (1902)

John Wesley Gilbert was born about 1863 in rural Hephzibah, Georgia; his mother Sarah was enslaved.  After Emancipation, Sarah took her young son to the nearby city of Augusta.  From childhood Gilbert thirsted for learning.  An 1871 Freedman’s Bank register bearing his signature gives his occupation as “go to school to Miss Chesnut.”

“Six months of the year,” Gilbert later recalled, “I ploughed, hoed, picked cotton, split rails, and spent the other six months in the public schools of Augusta.”  After attending the Augusta Institute (forerunner of Morehouse College), Gilbert in 1884 enrolled as the first student of Paine Institute (today Paine College), a cooperative inter-racial endeavor of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South and the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church (now Christian Methodist Episcopal Church).  Rev. George Williams Walker, Paine’s president from 1884-1910, would become Gilbert’s lifelong mentor and friend.

With Walker’s help, Gilbert in 1886 transferred to Brown University.  There he studied classical languages, literature, and history with Professor Albert Harkness, one of the original members of the American School’s Managing Committee.  Graduating in 1888, Gilbert returned home to become Paine Institute’s first Black faculty member while simultaneously reading for an MA in Greek under Harkness’ guidance.

Managing Committee records preserved in the ASCSA Archives in Athens suggest Harkness nominated Gilbert for the School as early as 1889.  Despite the presence on the Managing Committee of Basil Gildersleeve, a Confederate apologist and opponent of racial equality, the School had previously welcomed two other African American scholars.  Sadly, Wiley Lane of Howard University had died suddenly in 1885 before departing for Greece; William Sanders Scarborough, the preeminent Black Classicist of the day, planned to go in 1886 but could not find funding.

The American School of Classical Studies at Athens from south, ca. 1890. Photo: ASCSA Archives.

By January 1890, Gilbert secured a Brown fellowship for travel to Greece, earning nationwide attention in the African American press.  In June, when Gilbert spoke at the commencement of Ware High School in Augusta—Georgia’s only publicly funded high school for Black students—more than five hundred people attended.  Gilbert officially enrolled as a Brown University MA candidate for 1890-1891.  Leaving behind his wife Osceola and their baby daughter Alma, he set off for Athens in September 1890.

1890-1891 was a momentous time for Greek archaeology.  John Gilbert arrived in Athens amid high hopes that Americans would soon be digging at Delphi, only to see the French win the site (for the inside story, see Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan’s essay “The American Dream to Excavate Delphi”).  Gilbert may have met Heinrich Schliemann before the excavator of Troy left Athens for the last time in November.  Gilbert certainly attended Schliemann’s funeral in January 1891 in Athens and the memorial conference held at the School a few days later, where he and his fellow students were probably introduced to King George and Queen Olga of Greece.  Just two weeks after that, the British Museum unveiled the papyrus rolls of the Aristotelian Athenaîon Politeia, a long-lost treatise on Athenian government that the London Times hailed as a discovery “almost unprecedented in the whole history of classical learning.”

Delphi before excavation, 12 April 1891 (or life among the ruins). Photo: ASCSA Archives.

Gilbert’s year in Greece was also pivotal for the fledgling American School.  Since its foundation in 1881 the School had chosen a new director annually, hampering the development of a coherent program. The 1888 appointment of Cambridge’s Charles Waldstein as Permanent Director promised stability.  But, Waldstein was only in Greece from late December to mid-April at most, so the School continued selecting Annual Directors.  This awkward arrangement had worked poorly in 1889-90 and the stakes were high for 1890-91.

Rufus Richardson, 1886. Photo: Dartmouth College Archives.

Fortunately, the new Annual Director, Rufus Richardson of Dartmouth, developed good relations with Waldstein.  Richardson’s wife Alice and their three young children accompanied him to Greece.  Alice Richardson’s father Henry Chandler Bowen had helped found The Independent, a widely-read New York weekly.  Thanks to this family connection, The Independent published no less than eighteen American School-related items during 1890-91, including an article by John Gilbert.

Three other students joined Gilbert for the year.  Yale PhD student Carleton Brownson was from a Connecticut family of physicians and ministers.  Andrew Fossum of Iowa, son of Norwegian immigrant farmers, had earned his PhD from Johns Hopkins in 1887.  John Pickard of New Hampshire, an 1883 Dartmouth graduate, had taught high school before going to study in Germany in 1889.  Along with Pickard came his wife Jeanie, her mother Caroline Gerrish, Jeanie’s cousin Edith Harris, and their friend Emma Potter.  Edith and Emma attended many School activities, garnering them a brief mention in the School’s official report.

While Brownson, Fossum, and Gilbert took rooms in the School’s new building, Pickard and the four American women lived with Presbyterian minister M.D. Kalopothakes and his American second wife, Margaret Kyle.  The Kalopothakes house and church lay just across from the Arch of Hadrian, where the Greek Evangelical Church is still located today.  John Gilbert probably attended some of Rev. Kalopothakes’ Sunday services, conducted in Greek.

Previous Annual Directors had deemed archaeological “excursions” secondary to classroom study, but Richardson led Gilbert and his fellows through an intensive fall program of site visits and trips that would set the School’s pattern for decades to come.

John Pickard, ca. 1892. Courtesy of the Portsmouth Athenaeum, Portsmouth, NH. 

In Athens, the group relied on Jane Harrison and Margaret Verrall’s just-published Pausanias text and commentary, Mythology and Monuments of Ancient Athens.  Edith Harris wrote in a letter home: “There is a good deal of joking about [Harrison] and her books.  The students go out to walk with ‘Jane.” At present, we have her [i.e. the School’s copy] in the house and often you hear the cry, ‘Where’s Jane?’ ‘Have you got Jane?’”

Where most foreign travelers in Greece hired horses, John Gilbert and his fellows walked.  “Professor Richardson was fond of hikes,” Andrew Fossum later wrote.  In Attica the group followed routes German topographer Arthur Milchhöfer had recently explored for the Karten von Attika, including a three-day loop of some 75 miles from Athens via Kifissia to Marathon, Rhamnous, and the Amphiareion.  A ten-day, 250-mile slog in the November rain took them from Delphi through Phocis to Thermopylae and back through Boeotia to Athens.  Caroline Gerrish describes her son-in-law John Pickard returning “like a veritable tramp, splashed with mud from head to foot, and literally dirty as a pig…. They slept in all kinds of places, from a barn to a church, and they were invaded by bed bugs, which they very cutely named the Persians.”

Gilbert and the other students spent the winter attending site and museum lectures—including two-hour-long talks in German by Schliemann’s protegé, the architect Wilhelm Dörpfeld—and working in the School’s library.  It was the coldest winter Athens had seen in decades, with several heavy snowfalls.  During this time Gilbert wrote his MA thesis, entitled “The Demes of Athens” according to a letter he sent from Athens to William Sanders Scarborough.  While no known copy of his thesis survives, Gilbert’s research set him squarely in the midst of contemporary debates about Athenian topography and political organization.


The School’s focus now shifted to the ancient site of Eretria on the island of Euboea.  By early February of 1891, Fossum was excavating Eretria’s theater.  Brownson, Richardson, Waldstein, and the School’s “cook and master of all trades” Nikolaki arrived by the middle of the month.  After finishing their library work, Gilbert and Pickard arrived on February 26 and soon began a survey of Eretria’s topography.

Eretria 1891, first days of excavation. Carleton Brownson standing on the left side of the trench; Charles Waldstein wearing a pith helmet amidst his workmen on the right side of the trench. Photo: ASCSA Archives.

The group found quarters in an abandoned house in the village of Nea Psara, with Gilbert and Pickard sharing one of the two bedrooms.  Nikolaki converted another abandoned house into a kitchen and dining hall.  Gilbert and Pickard’s original survey map, preserved in the ASCSA Archives, labels the houses as “dormitory” and “salle à manger”—details omitted from the professionally redrawn version published in AJA.

The ASCSA Archives also preserve the only two known photographs of John Gilbert in Greece.  Both were taken at Eretria, almost certainly by Rufus Richardson.  Many of Richardson’s other shots of the season failed to develop, so most of the published photos of the 1891 excavations were taken by J.W. Gordon Oswald, a wealthy Scottish archaeology enthusiast who visited Eretria several times, or by Dörpfeld during a visit on May 5.

One photo shows the American School excavating the so-called “Tomb of Aristotle” east of Eretria, possibly near modern Magoula according to ASCSA Mellon Professor Sylvian Fachard, who has surveyed the area.  Waldstein never properly published this dig, but details emerge from an 1892 account he penned for Century Magazine, and from essays by Gilbert and Pickard that The Independent printed in April 1891.  The June 1891 “Archaeological News” column of what was then called The American Journal of Archaeology and of the History of the Fine Arts reprinted large portions of Gilbert’s and Pickard’s essays verbatim.  As was common practice at the time, the column omitted their names.  John Gilbert thus became the first African American scholar to be published in AJA, albeit anonymously.

At far left we can identify Andrew Fossum holding a notebook (which is not preserved in the ASCSA Archives).  In the center we see John Gilbert wearing a bowler hat and John Pickard wrapped in a shawl.  A Greek woman stands at the right, and at the far right edge of the frame we glimpse a rifle butt, evidence of a guard’s presence. The snow-covered slopes of Mount Olympus (at left rear) and the Servouni ridge in the background testify to the unusually cold winter.  Judging from the dry ground, this photo was taken on February 27, before the heavy snow that set in on March 1st.  Waldstein describes workmen on the 27th “breaking up the huge blocks of poros which impeded our progress downward” and freshly broken fragments are visible in the left foreground.

Andrew Fossum, John Gilbert, and John Pickard excavating the “Tomb of Aristotle” at Eretria, 1891. Photo: ASCSA Archives.

After days of snow and rain the Greek workmen sensibly refused to dig, so on March 3 the professors and students hoisted picks, shovels, and baskets and “trotted off…in the rain, singing American college songs” to dig in the mud as locals marveled at “the crazy foreigners.”  Waldstein recalled “the learned Professor Richardson picking away vigorously; while another bespectacled student [probably Pickard] filled the baskets which were handed from one to other.”  The scene was less comical than the urbane Waldstein supposed, for Fossum, Gilbert, Pickard, and Richardson had all grown up doing farm labor.

On March 4 the weather cleared.  The Greek workers, back on the job, uncovered a tomb with a marble slab inscribed [Β]ιότη [Ἀ]ριστοτέλου—Biote the daughter of Aristotle.  Gilbert’s Independent essay, written in March while he was still on Euboea but not published until April 30, reflects what must have been Waldstein’s reasoning at the time: “In another grave, next to this one, and belonging to the same family, was found a gold pen, a symbol for what had been the dead person’s life work.  Now when we remember that the pen was the symbol for a philosopher, that Chalkis, which is near Eretria, was the native home of Aristotle, the philosopher, that the relation between the two towns was generally that of friendly intimacy, and that Eretria, like the Cerameicus at Athens, was probably a burial place for celebrated persons, it does not seem improbable that the grave of Aristotle, the philosopher, was in Eretria, and that the present excavations have brought it to light.”

Waldstein and Richardson returned to Athens from March 9-16.  On the 12th, the Athenian paper Nea Ephemeris announced that the German School (!) had discovered at Eretria a tomb with an inscription bearing the name Aristotle.  News of “the Tomb of Aristotle” soon spread around the world, despite the cautionary notes Waldstein at first sounded.  Later Waldstein grew more confident.  As his 1892 Century article put it, “we do not claim that the attribution of this grave to the great philosopher is here proved beyond a doubt; but for the present we are justified in naming this grave, excavated at Eretria by the American School of Athens, the Tomb of Aristotle.”  Others were less sanguine.  French School director Théophile Homolle expressed “très grande scepticisme” in May 1891 and a journalist visiting Eretria in 1893 reports German archaeologists “smiled rather incredulously” at the notion.

Charles Waldstein supervising the excavation of the “Tomb of Aristotle.” Source: The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine 44 (new series 22) (May-October 1892), pp. 414-426.

The second photo, possibly taken later on February 27, shows Gilbert and Pickard flanking an unknown Greek man.  The weather has apparently warmed up, for Gilbert has turned down his coat and doffed his bowler.  Sylvian Fachard identifies the location as the southeast corner of the city wall, where the two round towers whose remains are clearly visible in the image may have flanked a gate.  Eretria’s fortifications received close attention in Gilbert and Pickard’s survey.  While Pickard concentrated on architectural details, Gilbert handled length measurements, using a metric Gunter’s Chain or similar surveyor’s device.  It is possible Gilbert had formal survey training, for Brown offered an elective course on the subject.  Gilbert also had a clinometer, an instrument that enabled him to correct measurements for incline.  Since chain-measuring requires two people, Gilbert must have had an assistant, perhaps the Greek man who appears in this photo.  In his AJA publication, Pickard thanks Gilbert twice, placing his name in the acknowledgements ahead of Waldstein, Richardson, and even Dörpfeld.  Gilbert and Pickard’s survey remains an important source of information on ancient Eretria, for some of the features they recorded in 1891 have since been built over or destroyed.

John W. Gilbert, unknown Greek man, and John Pickard, Eretria 1891. Photo: ASCSA Archives.

On March 19 the American School headed back to Athens. At the very end of the month, John Gilbert escorted Caroline Gerrish, Edith Harris, and Emma Potter to see Nafplio, Epidaurus, Tiryns, Argos, and Mycenae, then took his leave at Patras to begin his journey home.  Back in the U.S., it would have been unheard of for an African American man to accompany three white women on such a trip.

Rufus Richardson, who would later direct the School from 1893-1903, closed his official report for 1890-91 by writing: “It may be predicted with absolute certainty that our four students will go back in due time to America, if not trained archaeologists, at least with an interest in the Greek lands, and the life and monuments of ancient Greece, which will make them infectious centres of interest wherever they pitch their tents.”


Carleton Brownson (1866-1948) stayed on at the School for 1891-92.  He and Emma Potter married in 1892.  After completing his Yale PhD in 1897, Brownson taught at the City College of New York until 1936.  Andrew Fossum (1860-1943) taught in Minnesota at St. Olaf College, Park Region Luther College, and Concordia College before retiring in 1923.  John Pickard (1858-1937) took his PhD at Munich in 1892 then taught at the University of Missouri until his retirement in 1929.

John Gilbert returned to teach at Paine College.  His students included Channing Tobias, a future leader of the NAACP.  Gilbert was elected to the American Philological Association in 1897, becoming one of only two Black members at the time.  Newspapers into the 1900s lauded Gilbert as “the ablest Greek scholar of the race,” but his life’s work stretched far beyond Classics.  Even as segregation and racist violence tightened their grip on the U.S., Gilbert advocated tirelessly for interracial cooperation and harmony.  He was an eloquent voice for Black education, economic advancement, and justice, often being mentioned alongside Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois.  As a minister of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, Gilbert in 1911-1912 joined W.R. Lambuth of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South on an arduous mission to the Belgian Congo.  During this journey Gilbert contracted an illness from which he never fully recovered.  He died in Augusta in 1923.

Today, Gilbert is recognized as a pioneering Black Classicist. Some consider him the first Black archaeologist for his work at Eretria.  Gilbert-Lambuth Memorial Chapel at Paine College honors his legacy and Brown University’s Joukowsky Institute of Archaeology recently installed his photograph in a place of honor.  No monument yet stands in Athens to celebrate this extraordinary scholar’s contribution to the American School of Classical Studies, but John Wesley Gilbert remains an inspiration to all who learn of him.


Andrew Fossum quotations are from his unpublished journal preserved in the Andrew Fossum Papers (P0541), Norwegian-American Historical Association. Northfield, Minnesota.

Caroline Gerrish’s and Edith Harris’ letters are preserved in the Harris Family Papers (MS078) and Gerrish Kimball Collection (MS121), Portsmouth Athenaeum, Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

 Gilbert, J.W. 1891. “The Excavations at Eretria.” The Independent 43.2213 (April 30, 1891), p. 19 (643).

Pickard, J. 1891. “Excavations by the School at Eretria in 1891. VI. A Topographical Study of Eretria.” AJA 7.4, pp. 371-389.

Waldstein, C. 1892. “The Finding of the Tomb of Aristotle.” The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine 44 (new series 22) (May-October 1892), pp. 414-426.

Dollies and Doilies: Priscilla Capps Hill and the Refugee Crisis in Athens, 1922-1941

Posted by Jack L. Davis

Jack L. Davis, Carl W. Blegen Professor of Greek Archaeology at the University of Cincinnati and a former director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (2007-2012), here contributes an essay about the (forgotten) relief efforts of Priscilla Capps Hill through Near East Industries during the great refugee crisis that followed the Asia Minor catastrophe in 1922.

In the months that followed the Asia Minor catastrophe in September 1922 and the population exchange of 1923, more than a million Orthodox Christians were ultimately compelled to desert their birth rights in Anatolia. Their influx to Greece generated an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. American expatriates in Greece took immediate action. Darrell O. Hibbard of the YMCA and Jefferson Caffery, Chargé d’Affaires of the U.S. Mission, created the Athens American Relief Committee, which notified Red Cross missions in Europe and America about the crisis and organized the first relief efforts. Bert H. Hill, Director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter), was appointed Chairman of the Relief Committee, in which role he was expected to coordinate communication with the Greek government.  Harry Hill (no relation to Bert), an Englishman, head of the American Express Company in Athens, was charged with purchases and banking.  Hundreds of thousands of dollars were collected by the time the Committee was disbanded on November 24, 1922, when the American Red Cross arrived in Greece to provide humanitarian aid together with Near East Relief, the latter focusing largely on Turkey.  Its work had been invaluable. (See also E. Daleziou, ” ‘Adjuster and Negotiator’: Bert Hodge Hill and the Greek Refugee Crisis, 1918-1928,” Hesperia 82, 2013, pp. 49-65.)

The ASCSA’s involvement did not stop there. In the years to come “the School continued to be a hub for Americans offering their services to a variety of refugee relief efforts such as the ARC, the American Women’s Hospital Organization, Near East Relief, the YMCA, and the Athens American Relief Committee” (Daleziou 2013, p. 58). In addition to relief work, Edward Capps, the Chair of the School’s Managing Committee and a professor of Classics at Princeton University, was asked by Greece’s former prime-minister Eleftherios Venizelos to raise awareness in America of what was happening in Greece. Without wasting time, Capps, who knew Venizelos personally from his days as U.S. Minister to Greece (1920-1921), founded The American Friends of Greece (AFG), the broader mission of which was “to promote friendly relations between Greece and the U.S.” (The AFG later published booklets in support of Greece during World War II and a monthly newsletter, “The Philhellene,” which circulated from 1942-1950.)

Priscilla’s Story

Incorporation of the AFG on October 15, 1923 marked the start of Priscilla Capps’s involvement in refugee affairs, a much less well-known story than her father’s.  Priscilla Capps (1900-1985), a graduate of Smith College, had assisted her father in Athens during his service as Minister, while she was a student at the ASCSA, as a kind of “first daughter.”

Priscilla Capps clad in a traditional Greek costume, ca. 1920s. Photo: ASCSA Archives, Oscar Broneer Papers.

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Imagining and Reimagining Greece

Posted by Clayton Miles Lehmann

Clayton M. Lehmann, Professor of History at the University of South Dakota, here contributes an essay about American college students coming to Greece, as part of study-abroad programs. This post represents a modified and shortened version of the 63rd Annual Harrington Lecture, which he delivered 28 October 2015 to the College of Arts and Sciences of the University of South Dakota.  Lehmann was a Regular Member of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens in 1982/3, lived in Greece while he wrote his doctoral dissertation, and has returned often, three times as the Director of the Summer Session for the American School and regularly since 2005 as one of the professor-captains of the University of South Dakota’s short-term faculty-led study-abroad program “The Isles of Greece!”.

After disappointing tourism numbers for the 2004 Olympics, the Greek National Tourism Organization launched a major campaign, “Live Your Myth in Greece,” to rekindle Greece in the world’s imagination.  When a group of my students arrived in Athens in 2005 for the study-abroad program The Isles of Greece!,[1] they saw the advertisements for this campaign on the billboards and buses on the way into the city.  At first glance, the images appeal to the typical touristic expectation of the Greek quartet of sea, sun, sand, and sex.  But the classical architecture and supernatural figures suggest a more complex imaginary mix.  The fine print on some of these posters read:

Greece: a land of mythical dimensions. Where the spirit of hospitality welcomes you as a modern god. And the siren song draws you into its deep blue waters. Where a gentle breeze through ancient ruins seems to whisper your name. And a dance until dawn can seem to take on Dionysian proportions. In Greece the myths are still very much alive. And in amongst them sits your own . . . patiently waiting for you to live it. Live your myth in Greece.  Ask your travel agent.


Eros and Mermaid posters for Live Your Myth in Greece, Greek National Tourism Organization campaign, 2005; designed by K. Karavellas; and creative design by McCann Erickson-BBDO-Cleverbank Joint Venture. Photographs courtesy of the GNTO.

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Greece 1935-1938: Involuntary Testimonies

For the really significant history is that grass roots history which reveals the everyday life of people, in their homes, and at their retreats, in their work and in their play, in turbulence and in repose.
Theodore C. Blegen, 1948

“I suppose you have heard about the Revolution which is taking place here. It began last Friday night -March 1st. During dinner we heard various rumblings and shots out in the city, but didn’t think much about it, believing them just the ordinary noises of the city. But afterwards they became so pronounced that we knew something was happening. So Betty [Dow] and I went down-town, in the direction from which the shots came. We met many troops marching through the streets, and finally came to the region where the firing came from – near the Akropolis. A revolution is such a strange thing here – everyone takes it as a matter of course, and a little as a joke – and the firing isn’t widespread at all. We were able to approach so near –without any danger – that we witnessed a tank storming a barracks for soldiers, and saw the firing on both sides… after the attacks on the barracks which we saw (we were in a crowd of about 25 – the sole witnesses), we saw other tanks, at close range and finally came upon battalions of soldiers drawn up with guns and bayonets in the streets and ready for action… ” wrote Richard (Dick) H. Howland, age 25, to his family back in America.

Most of Howland’s letters carry the “Stadium” stamp, which was issued in 1932 as a supplementary stamp of the 1927 “Landscapes” set. The “Stadium” was withdrawn from sale in 1939. Photo: ASCSA Archives, Richard Howland Papers.

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Athens at the Turn of the Century: A Sentimental Capital and a Resort of Scholars

On February 17, 1901, a young American archaeologist and member of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter) was “roaming over the city in search of Mr. Kavvadias, the general ephor of antiquities in Athens, in order to get a permit to begin work at Vari tomorrow” (letter of Charles H. Weller to his wife).  Together with a small group of students from the School, he had conceived of the idea of conducting a small excavation at the Vari Cave on the southern spur of Mount Hymettus, near the ancient deme of Anargyrous. Known since the 18th century, the cave had been visited and described by several European travelers who were particularly taken by the reliefs and inscriptions carved on its walls.

Vari Cave interior with sculpted figures, 1923. Source: ASCSA Archives, Dorothy Burr Thompson Photographic Collection.

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The Spirit of St. Louis Lives in Athens, Greece

Have you noticed that in the last ten days the press has been flooded with articles about the Doomsday Clock?  Here are some of the titles: “The Doomsday Clock is the closest to midnight since 1953” (Engadget, Jan. 28, 2017), “Nuclear ‘Doomsday Clock’ ticks closest to midnight in 64 years (Reuters), “Doomsday Clock Moves Closer to Midnight, Signaling Concern Among Scientists (The New York Times, Jan. 26, 2017), and “The Doomsday Clock is now 2.5 minutes to midnight, but what does that really mean? (Science Alert).

Martyl's design of the Doomsday Clock for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

Martyl’s design of the Doomsday Clock for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

The Doomsday Clock was created in 1947 by members of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’s Science and Security Board; several of them were part of the “The Manhattan Project” that led to the creation of the first atomic bomb. (For those of you who want to learn more about “The Manhattan Project,” I recommend a drama series that premiered in 2014; although the series was discontinued after the second season, it featured good acting and it was fun to watch. Also see Jack Davis’s Communism In and Out of Fashion, Sept. 1, 2016.)  “Originally the Clock, which hangs on a wall in The Bulletin’s office at the University of Chicago, represented an analogy for the threat of global nuclear war; however, since 2007 it has also reflected climate change and new developments in the life sciences and technology that could inflict irrevocable harm to humanity… The Clock’s original setting in 1947 was seven minutes to midnight.  It has been set backward and forward 22 times since then, the smallest ever number of minutes to midnight being two in 1953, and the largest seventeen in 1991” (after Wikipedia, accessed 28/1/2017). As of January 2017 (and this explains the flurry of articles in the press), the Clock has been set at two and a half minutes to midnight, a reflection of President Trump’s comments about nuclear weapons: “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” Trump posted this remark on Twitter on December 22, 2016, and followed it with an even more worrisome comment: “Let it be an arms race,” he said, referring to the Russians.

While reading the history of the Doomsday Clock my eyes happened to fall on the cover of the 1947 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which featured for the first time the Clock (at seven minutes to midnight), and the name of the artist who had designed it: Martyl Langsdorf. Martyl is an unusual name, and I had seen it before. I went to the Archives Room of the American School of Classical Studies (ASCSA or the School hereafter), where we keep the School’s administrative records, and personal papers of its members. There, hanging on one of the walls, was an abstract painting depicting a mountainous landscape, and signed in the bottom left corner: “Martyl.” To my surprise, when I checked our inventory, there was a second work of art, an etching, by “Martyl” in the Archives of the ASCSA. But this one also carried a personal dedication: “To George and Lela with affection and admiration, Martyl.” This meant that Martyl’s other painting had also originally belonged to George and Lela Mylonas. Read the rest of this entry »