Publication Date

December 1, 1989

Perspectives Section


One supposes, which is to say, that we suppose, that professional historians are interested in the history of their own profession. And, one supposes again, that they would like to get that history right. One thing that they’ve gotten wrong all these many years is when it all began and who began it.

It is customary to start with J. Franklin Jameson. It was he, after all, who among other historians launched the AHA, the American Historical Review, and scores of historical research, editing, and publishing ventures, not to mention the Directory of American Biography (DAB). However, more than that, it is the conventional wisdom in, the words of Perkins and Snell in The Education of American Historians, 1952, that “the awarding of Ph.D.s in history began in 1882 when John Franklin Jameson at Johns Hopkins and Clarence Bowen at Yale received the degree.” We have never seen this “fact” contradicted, and indeed have read it in these very pages as recently as January 1988. But it isn’t true.

Warren Kuehl knew it wasn’t true. He listed seven pre-Jameson Ph.D.s in the first volume of his Dissertations In History, 1965 which actually includes the year 1873 in its subtitle. In 1985 he provided us with a list that included an additional three. And all those earliest doctorates were awarded not from Johns Hopkins, which didn’t even exist in 1873, but at—of all places—Harvard University.

Hugh Hawkins, in Between Harvard and America, 1972 tells the story of Charles W. Eliot’s stumbling efforts to do something about developing liberal arts programs designed to keep alums on campus for a few extra years, and perhaps even attract graduates from other less elevated institutions like Yale and Princeton. When a couple of Chautauqua-like experiments in the late 1860s crashed on first flight, Eliot launched the university, which already awarded graduate degrees in medicine and law, on a structured, degree granting program in the liberal arts. The first two doctoral candidates enrolled in the graduate department in 1872. One of them is of interest to the profession or should be if our original premise is correct. His name is Charles Leavitt Beals Whitney, and it is he who, in 1873, received the first Ph.D. in history from an American university.

Whitney, we learn from his obituary in the September 15, 1892 Boston Transcript, was born in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1850 and graduated second in his class from Harvard in 1871. He stayed on to take courses, and thus was in place when the Ph.D. granting program opened. A thesis was required, but more than likely that work was a minor production compared to today’s massive undertakings. Whitney’s was probably more like the European works of seventy-five pages or so as John Higham explains in History: Professional Scholarship in America, 1983. Whitney, along with one graduate in literature, received his degree at exercises on June 25, 1873. He went to Leipsic to study for a while and on his return turned his back on truth and wisdom and began a tradition followed by so many young Ph.D.s even today—he entered law school. He received his law degree from his alma mater in 1876 and ultimately, before his untimely death at forty-two, rose to prominence in the Suffolk County bar. Searches of the Harvard archives have so far turned up no trace of his thesis, and its subject and title can be the object of someone else’s research.

There is no such chasm in our essential knowledge, however, when it comes to Whitney’s immediate successors in the train of American Ph.D.s in history. No Ph.D.s were granted at Harvard in 1874, perhaps due to a $50 fee instituted that year, and none of the three granted in 1875 were in history. We take this to demonstrate that Whitney’s was the only doctorate in history from an American university before 1876, when, perhaps as a centennial celebration, Harvard granted three. One of these went to Henry Cabot Lodge, who wrote on “The Anglo-Saxon Land Law.” The original of Lodge’s thesis seems also to have disappeared, but it was published in Essays in Anglo-Saxon Law, 1876 along with a piece on Anglo-Saxon courts by Professor Henry Adams, who the next year would end his seven-year hitch at the institution. (The DAB says Lodge got his degree in political science, but his folder at the Harvard Archives makes it pretty clear that it was in history.) Also included in the volume were theses by Lodge’s two fellow 1876 Ph.D. recipients: “Anglo-Saxon Legal Procedure” by J. Laurence Laughlin, and “Anglo-Saxon Family Law” by Ernest Young.

James L. Laughlin, though not as famous as Lodge, still rates a considerable entry in the DAB. He taught political economy briefly at Harvard and then not so briefly at Cornell. He is best known, though perhaps not by many of us, for his History of Bimetalism in the United States, 1886, and The Principles of Money, 1906. He died in timely fashion and fittingly in 1933 at the age of eight-three.

The third of Harvard’s Ph.D. class of 1876 is a man after our collective heart. It seems to us he ought to stand beneath the goddess Clio as the profession’s patron saint. Ernest Young—no middle name—was born in Boston in 1852, the son of James and Abby Holden Young. He went to Boston Latin School and was graduated first in his class from Harvard in 1873. The next year at age twenty-two after teaching at Boston Latin, Young was appointed instructor in Roman law at Harvard, perhaps to replace Adams. He became a colleague of a number of distinquished historians and jurists, most notably Christopher Columbus Langdell, dean of the law school. Young spent 1878 on a travelling fellowship in Germany, but eventually returned to Harvard in 1883 as assistant professor.

In 1887 when he was thirty-five years old, the Mr. Chips-like Young, a retiring, almost reclusive man, married a Miss Sutton of North Andover. That was in June. Meanwhile, he had been assigned a new course to teach the following winter when he would return to campus as a full professor. It was “The Early Constitutional History of France,” and it killed him. The March 5, 1888 Boston Evening Transcript reported succinctly, “The cause of his death was insanity caused by overwork.”

The Boston Post of the same date has much more to tell us about the incident. We learn that the newly married scholar (who, recall, had written his thesis on family law and was perhaps better equipped to deal with the subject in the abstract than in the flesh) took to the task of preparing his course on French law with the intensity and determination that had carried him to the head of his undergraduate class. He worked long, long hours late into the night. By November 1 “he was losing flesh.” By late February he had grown listless, spent sleepless nights, and suffered attacks of forgetfulness. On February 29, God help us, as he was lecturing to his class, he forgot what he was teaching! And worse, his lapse was “noticed by several of the students.”

During the first days of March, while Young was resting at home under a physician’s direction, his bride of only seven or eight months left Cambridge for Boston, where she arranged to take her stricken groom to Scotland. There he would go into an institution “the nature of which would not be perceptible to him.” But a day or two later, on March 4, Ernest Young discovered the stratagem and in a well of despair purchased a pistol, went to his brother’s lodgings in Boston, and, in an act of poignant irony, blew out his brains. “The body,” wrote the Post reporter, “was found, then cold.”

The story of pre-Jameson Ph.D.s does not end with the sad demise of the saintly Ernest Young, martyr to well-prepared lectures. The list includes a number of others. There was Freeman Snow, Ph.D. 1877, who got another doctorate at Heidelberg in 1886. He taught at Annapolis among other places and finally at Harvard as Professor of International Law until his death in 1894.

Franklin Bartlett had bachelor’s degrees from Brooklyn Polytech and Harvard and a law degree from Columbia before he went to Harvard for his Ph.D., which he earned 1878. He then went into politics in New York as a Democrat, was elected to Congress for two terms in the 1890s, and, after an ignominious defeat, joined the army to serve as a colonel in the Spanish-American War.

Melville M. Bigelow had a law degree from Michigan and practiced in Boston while working for his 1879 PhD; but most of the time he was establishing the Boston University Law School. He became dean of the school while still in his twenties and kept the job till his death in 1921—a tenure of forty-nine years!

Then, of course, there was Edward Channing of 1880, familiar to most of us as a long-time Harvard professor and the man who gave the first paper at the first session at the first meeting of the AHA.

Another was a non-lawyer who didn’t like history. Denman Ross tolerated historical scholarship under the paternal eye until that eye closed forever and then fled to the world of art theory, where he made a name for himself. He then returned to Harvard to teach that subject.

Ross got his Ph.D. in history in 1882 along with Samuel E. Turner. Turner was one of the few of these early Harvard doctors who actually practiced history as an academic. But he, too, first earned his law degree at the University of Maryland. He taught secondary school, and in 1896, like Ernest Young, died with his boots on—riding his bicycle across Harvard Square, he was trampled by a horse.

Thus ten Ph.D.s in history were already in the hands of Harvard graduates before Jameson and Bowen got theirs in 1882. That fact cannot dull the lustre of Jameson’s deserved reputation as the pater-familias of the historical profession. Nor should it diminish the standing of either Johns Hopkins or Yale as pioneers in graduate instruction in history. But it should gain for Harvard its rightful position as first in point of time; and for Ernest Young, a heartfelt professional Amen!

Christopher Collier is a professor of history at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. Bonnie Collier is a research associate at the Yale University School of Law.