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Duckett, Eleanor Shipley

Eleanor Shipley Duckett

Eleanor Shipley Duckett was a noted philologist and historian, and a significant character in the history of Smith College. Although she taught courses on classical languages and literature at Smith College for nearly thirty years, it was her work on the history of Europe during the Early Middle Ages that brought her the greatest joy and garnered the most acclaim. Her body of work placed her firmly in the ranks of respected scholars of her field, but attracted a popular audience as well. Although scholarly and based on solid research, her work was written specifically for the layperson. She wanted to communicate her love of medieval history and culture to more than an academic audience. Her ability to translate the intricacies of her fields for the uninitiated also served her well as a professor. She was a favorite of Smith students, and an integral part of the campus community.

Duckett was born November 7, 1880, in Somerset, England. Encouraged by her father to study the classical texts, she worked diligently through her preparatory education in order to attend college. She was accepted at the University of London, receiving her B.A in 1903, her M.A. in 1904, and a Diploma in Pedagogy in 1905. She used these degrees to teach the classics at Sutton High School in Surrey until 1907, but then left to resume her own education with a scholarship to Girton College, the first women’s college at Cambridge University. In 1911 she passed the Classical Tripos examination, and promptly left Europe on another scholarship for Ph.D. work at Bryn Mawr. She received her doctorate in 1914, and became an instructor at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio. She taught Latin and Greek there until 1916 when she became a Latin instructor at Smith College. In 1928 she was named the John M. Greene Professor of Classical Languages and Literature at Smith, and remained in that position until her retirement in 1949. In 1952, Cambridge University awarded Duckett a Doctor of Letters degree for her work in medieval Latin literature, but she never received a degree for her initial studies at Cambridge. Women were not awarded either full degrees or the benefits of membership at Cambridge until 1948. For more on women and the degree system at Cambridge, see Rita McWilliams-Tullberg, “Women and Degrees at Cambridge University, 1862-1897,” in A Widening Sphere: Changing Roles of Victorian Women, edited by Martha Vicinus (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977), 117-145.

Duckett also received a number of academic honors and awards. From 1926-1928 she held the Ottilie Hancock fellowship at Girton College. She accepted honorary degrees from the University of London (1920), Smith College (1949) and St. Dunstan’s University (1969). The Pen & Brush Club, an organization devoted to the arts, celebrated her Anglo-Saxon Saints and Scholars as the most distinguished work of non-fiction of 1947. She also obtained an honorary membership in Phi Beta Kappa (1954), an honorary fellowship at Girton College (1958), and two Sophia Smith Fellowships for continuing research by Smith College emeriti (1963 and 1966). In 1964 she gave the Katharine Asher Engel Memorial Lecture at Smith, which was published the following year as Women and Their Letters in the Early Middle Ages.

While at Smith, Duckett not only taught, but lectured widely, wrote continuously, and was active in the Special Honors program. After retirement, Duckett remained an active voice in the history of the Early Middle Ages, and retained a prominent position on campus as an emeritus professor. She kept her office in Neilson Library at Smith, and also spent extended periods researching and lecturing at Cambridge. She traveled the world to lecture, research, and receive honors for her work. In fact, several of her most important publications were written after retirement. She was also very active in St. John’s Episcopal Church in Northampton. She lectured there on the saints and the Church Councils, translated hymns, and organized readings of the Epistles.

In 1926, Duckett met Mary Ellen Chase, Smith professor of English and renowned author. Soon after, they moved into a home next-door to the Smith College president on Paradise Road. They traveled together frequently, to England and to “Windswept,” a house on the coast of Maine whose name and location inspired Chase’s best-selling novel. They shared their lives until Chase’s death in 1973. Duckett died on November 23, 1976, and was laid to rest next to Chase in a cemetery in Blue Hill, not far from the Chase family homestead.

Eleanor Duckett’s academic legacy is her body of work-seventeen full-length volumes, as well as many contributions to scholarly journals and two major encyclopedias. Another legacy stands on the grounds of Smith College. Duckett House is one of two residence buildings added to the campus in 1968. The second building, Chase House, adjoins Duckett, and as its companion honors the contributions of both women to the history of the institution.

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