The Vassar College Historian is Dean Emeritus of the College and Professor Emeritus of English Colton Johnson. His office is located in the Maria Mitchell Observatory, room 100.
The Recording of Vassar’s History
In remarks to the trustees on June 25, 1867, at the end of the college’s second year, Matthew Vassar presented each trustee with a copy of Vassar College and Its Founder, by historian Benson Lossing, a founding trustee, the response to their earlier recommendation that “a full history of our College and its Founder ought to be written.” “The importance of this history,” he said, “can only be appreciated by the magnitude, character and duration of your institution. Without it, posterity might seek in vain for its early history after our bodies lie crumbling in the grave.”
Over the next nearly 150 years, Vassar’s history has been preserved, recorded, studied and discussed by countless authors—many of them, like Lossing, themselves part of Vassar’s story and four of them presidents of the college: in 1873, John Howard Raymond (president, 1865-79); in 1914 and 1915, James Monroe Taylor (1886-1914); in 1950, Henry Noble MacCracken (1915-1946); and, in 1972, Alan Simpson (1964-1977). Other contributors are Vassar graduates, such as Cornelia Raymond (Class of 1883) in 1940, Elizabeth Hazelton Haight (1894) in 1914 and 1916, Constance Mayfield Rourke (1907) in 1916, Marion Bacon (1922) in 1940, Dorothy Plum (1922) and Constance Dimock Ellis (1938) in 1961, Elizabeth Adams Daniels (1941) in 1987, 1994, 1996, 2000, 2001 and 2004 and Maryann Bruno (1982) in 2001.
Haight, Rourke and Daniels were also members of the faculty, following in the tradition of faculty and staff historians of the college begun in 1873 by Professor of Natural History James Orton, the founding director, in 1867, of Vassar’s Natural History Museum. This group also includes College Librarian Frances Wood in 1909, Professor of Chemistry Edward Linner in 1984, Professor of History Clyde Griffen in 2000, Professor of Astronomy Henry Albers in 2001, Professor of Art History Nicholas Adams in 2001 and Associate Director of Libraries for Special Collections Ronald Patkus in 2004.
The most prolific of these historians is the first official college historian, Elizabeth Adams Daniels ’41. A long-time member of the English department, a dean several times over and a key creator of the coeducational Vassar that emerged from the unsuccessful proposed merger with Yale in the late 1960s, Daniels began recording oral histories of former faculty and staff and of alumnae in the early 1980s. Retiring from the faculty in 1985— “for a weekend,” as she put it—she proposed the new office to President Virginia Smith on the following Monday, and her proposal was accepted. As Vassar historian, Betty Daniels gathered and conserved significant records which had gone unarchived—and sometimes undiscovered—published several books, answered countless queries from on-campus and outside researchers, spoke on Vassar history at campus, alumnae/i and extramural events and oversaw the work on a wide range of projects of dozens of student interns. Several of these young people, trained in archival work by Daniels, subsequently pursued professional work in the field. The online VCencyclopedia was begun in 2003, and in the college’s sesquicentennial year, 2011, the online Documentary Chronicle of Vassar College revised and expanded The Magnificent Enterprise, a chronicle published in the centennial year, 1961.
In 2006, at the time of Betty Daniels’s acceptance of the “Spirit of Vassar Award” from the Associate Alumnae/i of Vassar College (AAVC), President Frances Fergusson said, “She literally found our history. We wouldn’t have undertaken this work, or even seen the need for it, if it weren’t for Betty.”
Elizabeth Daniels retired from the historian’s office in June, 2013, but the work that Matthew Vassar foresaw, that Frances Fergusson defined and that Betty assumed will continue.