Grace Harriet Macurdy, portrayed by Barbara F. McManus GRACE HARRIET MACURDY
(portrayed by
Barbara F. McManus)

Representing Our Ancestors

Grace Harriet Macurdy (1866-1946): Professor of Greek at Vassar College, 1893-1937. 1888 BA “Harvard Annex” (later Radcliffe); 1899-1900 study at University of Berlin with Wilamowitz and Diels; 1903 PhD Columbia.

Macurdy was born in the tiny coastal town of Robbinston, Maine, on 12 September 1866; both of her parents were descendants of British Loyalists who had settled in New Brunswick, Canada. In an effort to find enough work to support his large family, her father, a carpenter, moved the family to Watertown, Massachusetts, in 1870, where Macurdy grew up without economic or social advantages. She attended the Watertown public schools, where she was one of only ten students to complete the college preparatory course. After a year of independent study, she passed the Harvard Examinations for Women with honors in classics and commuted to the Annex for four years by horse-drawn trolley, winning classical honors again at graduation. She subsequently taught Latin at the Cambridge School for Girls from 1888-92. A fellowship from the Woman's Education Association enabled her to study for a year in Berlin.

Macurdy joined the Greek Department of Vassar College in 1893 and was promoted to Associate Professor in 1903 and Professor in 1916. During the summers of 1908-1918, she taught Greek at Columbia University; known as "the lady professor," she was the first woman to teach in Columbia's academic program. Apparently feeling upstaged by these achievements, Abby Leach (1855-1918), who chaired Vassar's Greek Department, campaigned from 1907 to 1916 to bring about Macurdy's dismissal or resignation, but Macurdy's excellent scholarship and teaching and warm personality won her strong support among the Vassar faculty, administration, and trustees. Unlike Leach, Macurdy served as a mentor for her younger colleagues, including Cornelia Coulter, Lily Ross Taylor, and Inez Scott Ryberg.

Macurdy's prolific scholarship eventually included 5 books (4 of which have been reprinted at least once), 57 scholarly articles (including all the major British and American classical journals in her time), 18 book reviews, plus a number of poems and articles in more popular venues. Her most enduring contributions to classical scholarship are her books on Hellenistic Queens (1932) and Vassal Queens (1936), both published by Johns Hopkins University Press. These books anticipate many of the features of the modern feminist approach to the study of women in antiquity. Macurdy was a true pioneer—the first woman to achieve distinction as a professional classicist and the first female classicist to focus her research on the lives of ancient women.

In 1919, Macurdy began to lose her hearing and in a few years became almost completely deaf. However, she learned to lip read and used ear trumpets and every device available to assist communication so that her deafness did not materially affect her teaching, scholarship, numerous friendships or extensive travels. She maintained a warm friendship with several British classicists, most notably Jane Ellen Harrison, Gilbert Murray, and J. A. K. Thomson. Although she never married, Macurdy helped to raise a niece and two nephews, who came to live with her after the death of her sister.

Her last years were devoted to scholarship and British war relief, for which she was awarded the King's Medal for Service in the Cause of Freedom in 1946. By 1945 her vision was failing and she was plagued by financial worries, particularly how she was going to pay for an expensive cataract operation so she could read and write again, which to her were imperative for life. Although she did raise the money for a successful operation, she succumbed to breast cancer on 23 October 1946.

Barbara F. McManus
October 2007
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