Edith Hamilton, portrayed by Elizabeth Scharffenberger EDITH HAMILTON
(portrayed by
Elizabeth Scharffenberger)

Representing Our Ancestors

Edith Hamilton (1867-1963): Headmistress, The Bryn Mawr School, Baltimore, 1896-1922. 1894 BA and MA, Bryn Mawr College. Best-selling author, 1930-present.

Hamilton was born near Dresden, Germany, on 12 August 1867 to affluent American parents who had relocated in Europe owing to the US Civil War. She grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she was educated at home under her father's supervision, and began the study of both Greek and Latin at an early age. From 1884 though 1886, she attended what was then called Miss Porter's School for Young Ladies in Farmington, Connecticut; she then spent four years making up for her educational deficiencies to pass the Bryn Mawr College entrance examinations.

Her classics professors at Bryn Mawr, which awarded her a Latin fellowship in 1894-1895, included Gonzales Lodge. Winning the college's Mary E. Garrett European Fellowship enabled her to spend 1895-1896 studying in Germany. Upon returning to the US she accepted an offer from M. Carey Thomas, president of Bryn Mawr College, to assume the position of headmistress at The Bryn Mawr School in Thomas' native Baltimore; founded in 1885 by Thomas and her friend Garrett, it was the first all-female secondary school with an exclusively college preparatory curriculum.

Hamilton stayed at this administrative post for the next 26 years, teaching the senior Vergil class on a regular basis but otherwise putting aside her classical interests to cope with the challenges of maintaining the school's high academic standards and keeping it afloat financially. She re-engaged with classical, and particularly Greek, literature when she retired in 1922, shortly after adopting Dorian Reid (b. 1917), the grandson of her close friends Edith Gittings Reid, a playwright and biographer, and Harry Fielding Reid, a Johns Hopkins University geology professor. Along with the Reids' daughter Doris Fielding Reid (1895-1973), who had been one of her students at The Bryn Mawr School, Edith moved to Maine and then New York City, home-schooling Dorian until 1927.

Encouraged to start writing about classical antiquity for a popular audience by well-connected friends in the New York literary world, she published her first book, The Greek Way, in 1930, at the age of 63. It was a commercial and a critical success, as were her subsequent books: most notably The Roman Way (1932), Three Greek Plays (1937), Mythology (1942), The Echo of Greece (1957), and The Ever-Present Past (1954). Her only article in a scholarly journal was the text of the talk she presented at the fiftieth anniversary meeting of CAAS in 1957, entitled “The Classics,” and published in CW 51.2. She also spoke at the 1961 CAAS meeting in Washington, DC, where she and Doris made their home from 1943 onwards.

A petite and slender woman who always dressed in ankle-length skirts, Edith Hamilton spoke in a distinctive manner, with an accent more British than Hoosier, that became more pronounced as her hearing faded. Tapes of several radio and television programs, such as Edward R. Murrow's “This I Believe,” preserve her inimitable voice and charismatic presence.

Edith Hamilton died a few months before her 96th birthday, on 31 May 1963. She was widely honored and recognized during, and after, her long lifetime: she celebrated her 90th birthday in Greece, where she was named an honorary citizen of Athens; Senator Robert F. Kennedy frequently invoked her words, most memorably in the speech that he delivered in Indianapolis on 4 April 1968 upon hearing of Martin Luther King's assassination. Her writings have inspired many to study classics and pursue vocations in the field.

Judith P. Hallett
October 2007
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