AHA President, 1939


Harvard University

From the American Historical Review 60:1 (October 1954)

William Scott Ferguson (November 11, 1875–April 28, 1954) died at the age of seventy-nine, after a brief illness, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on April 28, 1954. For the PhD degree at Cornell in 1898, when he was twenty-three, he published a thesis which proved that certain Athenian offices were distributed among the tribes in a fixed order of succession. This discovery became known as “Ferguson’s Law.” Its chronological importance for the Hellenistic period especially was obvious at once. In Berlin Ferguson and others developed the results, a study which still goes on. Few careers have begun more brilliantly. For a decade, Ferguson’s published researches, at California and then at Harvard, continued to be largely epigraphical and apparently “special”; but in 1911 Hellenistic Athens, a work which dealt with every aspect of civilization, proved that ability in one line is often an index of ability in all. For the Cambridge Ancient History he wrote four chapters covering the second half of the Peloponnesian War, and he was also invited to introduce the first Hellenistic volume, for which Greek Imperialism (1913) had helped to provide a background. His works thereafter could nearly all be labeled with the bleak word, “monograph,” but the incomplete list (Harvard Stud. Class. Philol. LI [1940], 1-9) shows that he could build up new truth in nearly every period and in a whole gamut of subjects, not excluding a useful synthesis for his presidential address to the American Historical Association (1940). Yet he never lost sight of what he thought was properly central in history: power, the power of men over other men and over themselves; the motives, the organization, the process, and the actual narrative, of the state. To this study and to all others he brought an extraordinary acuteness of insight. As dean of the Harvard Faculty for three years, he created a rational scheme of tenure whereby new appointments are independent of retirements. His teaching combined strictness and kindliness; none of his PhD students was led to think that research is easy, but they knew he was right as well as kind, and all were devoted. It is perhaps a tribute to their master that not all stayed in Hellenic studies, or even in strict scholarship; one has become president of Harvard.



The Athenian archons of the third and second centuries before Christ. By William Scott Ferguson. New York: Macmillan, 1899.

Hellenistic Athens; an historical essay. London: Macmillan, 1911; Reprint, Chicago: Ares Publishers, 1974.

A history of the ancient world, by George Stephen Goodspeed, rev. by William Scott Ferguson and Stillman Percy Robert Chadwick. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1912.

Greek imperialism, by William Scott Ferguson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1913.

Greek leaders, by Leslie White Hopkinson, under the editorship of William Scott Ferguson. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1918.

The treasurers of Athena, by William Scott Ferguson. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1932.

Athenian tribal cycles in the Hellenistic age, by William Scott Ferguson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1932.

The Athenian secretaries. New York: Johnson Reprint Corp., 1970; 1898.

A political and cultural history of the ancient world from prehistoric times to the dissolution of the Roman Empire in the West, by C. E. Van Sickle. 2 vols. Westport, Conn., Greenwood Press, 1970; 1947-48.

Athenian studies, presented to William Scott Ferguson. New York: Arno Press, 1973.