Putnam, Bertha Haven (1872–1960)

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Putnam, Bertha Haven (1872–1960)

American expert on medieval English legal and economic history who was a professor at Mt. Holyoke College for 29 years. Born on March 1, 1872, in New York City; died on February 26, 1960, in South Hadley, Massachusetts; eldest of four daughters of George Haven Putnam (d. 1930, head of publishing firm G.P. Putnam's Sons) and Rebecca Kettel (Shepard) Putnam (d. 1895); stepdaughter of Emily James Putnam (1865–1944); attended Miss Audobon's School and Miss Gibbons' School, both New York City; Bryn Mawr College, A.B., 1893; Columbia University, Ph.D., 1908; never married; no children.

Scholar and teacher Bertha Haven Putnam was born in 1872 in New York City and grew up in a privileged household filled with educational opportunities and unique social contacts. Her father George Haven Putnam, who served in the Union army during the Civil War, later took over his father's publishing business, which evolved into G.P. Putnam's Sons. Her mother Rebecca Putnam had attended Antioch College, but left to nurse in a military hospital. She later taught high school and, following her marriage, was active in introducing kindergartens into the New York City school system. Bertha, who persuaded her mother to teach her Greek at the age of ten, attended exclusive schools in New York City, and graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 1893. She began her career in education as a teacher of Latin at the Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore. When her mother died in 1895, she returned home to serve as her father's hostess until his marriage to Emily James Putnam in 1899. While living at home, Bertha taught special classes at the Brearley School and began graduate study at Columbia University. After receiving her Ph.D. in 1908, she became an instructor in history at Mt. Holyoke College, working her way up to full professor in 1924.

Putnam's interest in English legal and economic history was sparked by historian Charles M. Andrews at Bryn Mawr and by sociologist F.W. Giddings at Columbia. While researching her doctoral dissertation, The Enforcement of the Statutes of Labourers during the First Decade after the Black Death, 1349–1359 (published in 1908), Putnam studied the justices of the peace, to whom the responsibility for labor legislation and enforcement later fell. Thereafter, the justices of the peace became her field of expertise and the subject of most of her writings, which included numerous articles and the editing of several volumes, among them Proceedings Before the Justices of the Peace in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries, Edward III to Richard III (1938), the culmination of 30 years of research for which she received the first Haskins Medal awarded from the Mediaeval Academy of America.

In addition to her impeccable research, Putnam was a stimulating and effective teacher, with a keen sense of humor. She was always eager to assist honor and graduate students as well as young faculty members, and along with chair Nellie Neilson brought a great deal of prestige to the history department at Mt. Holyoke. Putnam's work, much of it done in England, was also recognized and honored outside her own institution. She received fellowships from the American Association of University Women, and research grants from the American Council of Learned Societies, and was the first woman and nonlawyer to receive a research grant from Harvard Law School (1938). She was elected a fellow of the Mediaeval Academy in 1949.

Putnam retired from Mt. Holyoke in 1937, after which she served as a lecturer at Bryn Mawr for a year while continuing her scholarly research. In the late 1940s, however, an attack of shingles left her partially blind and unable to work. Putnam died in 1960.


Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts