Columbians Ahead of Their Time
 Marjorie Hope Nicolson
Marjorie Hope Nicolson "Social scientists must believe that poetry, essays, and drama are as legitimate expressions of the spirit of man as the works of John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith -- or even Karl Marx."

Marjorie Hope Nicolson (1894-1981)
Literary Scholar
Faculty 1941-1962
LittD 1963 (hon.)

Marjorie Hope Nicolson pioneered new scholarly approaches to the study of literature and science. Her writings include the prizewinning Newton Demands the Muse (1946), The Breaking of the Circle (1950), Science and Imagination (1956), Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory (1959), and Pepys' Diary and the New Science (1965). As an undergraduate, she was drawn to philosophy but chose literature as more hospitable to women. Earning her PhD at Yale in two years, she did postdoctoral work abroad and at Johns Hopkins, and taught at the University of Minnesota, Goucher College and Smith College, where she also served as dean of the faculty. When she joined the Columbia faculty in 1941, she broke new ground as the first woman to be a full professor at an Ivy League university. In the course of her career, Nicolson produced a substantial body of extraordinary work, mentored several generations of graduate students, and championed the American professor's responsibility to combine scholarship with teaching.

By the time Nicolson arrived at Morningside Heights, she had already served as the first woman president of Phi Beta Kappa, and had turned down the offer to become the first woman president of Smith College. "If we are to try for Professor Nicolson we must begin without delay," wrote department chair Ernest Wright as he undertook the internal battle that culminated in her appointment. "We fear that she will not keep on declining presidencies unless we can make her the offer she so abundantly merits." Nicolson later became chair of Columbia's graduate department of English and Comparative Literature (1954-62) and president of the Modern Language Association (1963).

Adapted from "The 'Conscience of Columbia': Remembering Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Scholar and Teacher," a Living Legacy article by Andrea Walton of Indiana University, Bloomington (publication pending).

Read more about Marjorie Hope Nicolson in the Columbia Encyclopedia.


By Barnard's Rosalind Rosenberg

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