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Macurdy, Grace Harriet (1866–1946)

Macurdy, Grace Harriet (1866–1946)

American Greek scholar and teacher . Born Grace Harriet Macurdy on September 15, 1866, in Robbinston, Maine; died on October 23, 1946, in Poughkeepsie, New York; daughter and one of at least three children of Simon Angus Macurdy (a carpenter) and Rebecca Bradford (Thomson) Macurdy; attended high school in Watertown, Massachusetts; graduated from the Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women (later Radcliffe College), in 1888; studied at the University of Berlin, 1899–1900; Columbia University, Ph.D., 1903.

A respected Greek scholar and a long-time professor at Vassar College, Grace Macurdy devoted her life to researching and teaching in her chosen field. The daughter of a carpenter, she was born in 1866 in Robbinston, Maine, and attended high school in Watertown, Massachusetts, where the family moved before she was ten. She graduated from the Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women (later Radcliffe College) in 1888, and immediately began her teaching career at Cambridge School for Girls. Macurdy was appointed instructor of Greek at Vassar College in 1893, and remained there until her retirement in 1937.

During the early years of her career, Macurdy continued her own education, spending a year at the University of Berlin on a fellowship from the Woman's Education Association of Boston, and receiving her Ph.D. degree from Columbia University in 1903, after which she was promoted to associate professor. Her further advancement at Vassar was slowed by her frequent clashes with Abby Leach , who was the chair of the classics department until her death in 1918. Macurdy became a full professor in 1916 and was appointed chair of the department in 1920, a post she held until her retirement. For ten years (1908–18), she also taught summer courses in Greek language and literature at Columbia University, before she began using her summers to travel abroad, carrying on research at the British Museum and in Greece, France, Italy, and Austria.

Macurdy's scholarly writings included extensive contributions to both American and British classical journals, and five books: The Chronology of the Extant Plays of Euripides (her doctoral dissertation, 1905), Troy and Paconia (1925), Hellenistic Queens (1932), Vassal-Queens and Some Contemporary Women in the Roman Empire (1937), and The Quality of Mercy (1940), a study of Greek literature written to commemorate Vassar's 75th anniversary. Much of Macurdy's written work reflects her deep interest in the achievements of women and in their battle through the ages for political and social equity. As might be expected, she was an ardent supporter of the suffrage movement of her own day.

Characterized as outspoken and a tad outrageous, Macurdy was hardly the stereotypical college professor. Dubbed "the Mad Queen" because of her wild hair and oversized hats, she was adored by her students who responded to her enthusiastic teaching methods by working particularly hard in her classes. Aside from her nemesis Abby Leach, Macurdy was also much loved by the entire Vassar community and beyond. When she retired, Vassar's president, Henry MacCracken, spoke of "her humor, her gaiety, and her eloquence," and her perpetual "spirit of youth."

Grace Macurdy continued to live at the college following her retirement, pursuing her research and occasionally lecturing, despite encroaching deafness. During World War II, she worked for Greek and British relief, and was awarded the British King's Medal in 1946. She died of cancer at the age of 80.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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