Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Birthday: the woman who brought the classics to life.


Edith Hamilton (1867-1963)
Educator, author
Recipient, honorary doctorates, The University of Rochester and the University of Pennsylvania (1950)
Fellow, The National Institute of Arts & Letters (1955)
Fellow, The American Academy of Art & Letters (1957)
Recipient, The Golden Cross of Benefaction of the Kingdom of Greece, and the honorary citizenship of Athens (1957)

Born to wealthy parents who believed in women’s education, Edith Hamilton and her sisters were all trailblazers. Her sister, Alice, was the first woman professor at Harvard (1919)- where she held an appointment in the Medical School- and was an early activist in the Hull House movement.

After taking her B.A. and M.A. in classics at Bryn Mawr, Edith and Alice traveled to Europe hoping to do doctoral studies at the great German universities of Leipzig and Munich. Edith was stymied by the prejudices of the time (one university offered to let her sit in on lectures, behind a green curtain, but decided, instead, to put her in a chair on the platform, next to the professor, where she was forbidden to ask questions). Returning to America, Hamilton was offered a post at the newly-formed Bryn Mawr Preparatory School for Girls in Baltimore, and rose to the headship before she retired in 1922.

In retirement, Hamilton wrote scholarly articles on Greek drama at her Maine  summer house; in the winters she stayed in New York. A friend and former student, Doris Fielding Reid, invited her to stay in her apartment one winter season; the two became companions for the rest of Hamilton’s life, and Reid wrote her official biography.

At 62, Hamilton published her first book, The Greek Way. The summation of fifty years’ thought and study, the work was an instant success and remained so well-regarded that The Book of the Month Club adopted it as a selection 27 years later. Having never been to Greece, and with no archaeological training, Hamilton approached the life of the ancient Greeks from the texts of the classics; her 1942 book, Mythology, remains a standard high school and college introductory text in the field. Her translations of Greek drama won praise for casting off the florid, anglicised style of past decades for a more spare, realistic expression.

Hamilton published ten books in the last thirty years of her life, and in her 80s honors were showered upon her. At 90 she visited Athens, where she was conferred the honorary citizenship of the city, in the Theater of Herodes Atticus, at the foot of the Acropolis.


Felled by a stroke late in life, Hamilton was bedridden when her doctor told Reid her companion would likely never walk again. Hamilton opened her eyes, forcefully said, “Pooh!” and went on to walk again. She was working on a biography of Plato when she died in 1963, age 96.


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