Columbia’s “Fair Doctors”

In April 1887 Columbia celebrated the Centennial of the 1787 Charter, the charter that is in effect to this day. At the grand Convocation, there were speeches, a special poem for the day, and the conferring of 60 honorary degrees. The newspapers the next day focused on Columbia’s “fair doctors” because Columbia was one of the first institutions to award an honorary degree to a woman. In fact, on that day, Columbia recognized three such worthy women: Egyptologist Amelia Blandford Edwards, President of Wellesley College Alice Elvira Freeman, and Vassar College Astronomer Maria Mitchell.

From “The Celebration of the Columbia Centennial,” drawn by W.P. Snyder, Harper’s Weekly, Vol. XXXI No. 1583, April 24, 1887. Flat Files (Box 5, folder 1), University Archives.

In December 1886, a trustee committee was appointed for the Centennial Celebration of the College, which included President Frederick A.P. Barnard, Trustee Chair Hamilton Fish, and trustees Morgan Dix, Joseph W. Harper, and Seth Low. The Committee report of March 1887 mentions that the number of candidates for honorary degrees “is quite moderate in comparison with those conferred on similar occasions by foreign universities.” They claimed that the number of honors decreed by the University of Edinburgh at its Tercentenary festival in 1884 exceeded two hundred. [1] And while the list of honorees grew over time to include 60 recipients, all three of the women were there from the original submission.

  • Amelia Blandford Edwards. Edwards abandoned a successful career as a novelist after her first visit to Egypt in 1873. She turned her full attention to Egyptian archaeology and served as the Secretary of the Egyptian Exploration Fund. President Barnard was a contributor to the Fund, which continues to this day as the Egypt Exploration Society. Edwards was unable to attend the Centennial celebration (her degree was awarded in abstentia) but she came to Columbia in 1889 to deliver six well-received public lectures on Egyptology.
  • Alice Elvira Freeman. In 1881, Freeman was elected as Acting President of Wellesley College at the age of 26. By 1887, she was the most visible woman educator in the country. A few months after her honorary degree, Freeman announced her resignation from Wellesley. In December 1887, she married George Herbert Palmer, professor of philosophy at Harvard.
  • Maria Mitchell. First American to discover a comet in 1847, Mitchell was awarded a gold medal from King Frederick VI of Denmark and became the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1848. She joined Vassar College in 1865, where she occupied the first building completed on campus, an observatory equipped with a 12-inch telescope (now at the Smithsonian).
1887 Centennial Celebration, Admit One. Founding Anniversaries Collection (Box 1, folder 4), University Archives.

At the time of the Centennial of the 1787 Charter, Columbia College was made up of five schools – Arts, Mines, Law, Political Science and Medicine – and there were about 1,500 students enrolled. For this celebration, all classes were suspended for the week. Alumni were invited to take part in a procession from the 49th Street campus to the Metropolitan Opera House, then located at Broadway and 39th Street, and over 1,000 former students joined in. At the morning Convocation, Frederic R. Coudert, Class of 1850, delivered a “masterly oration,” the Reverend George Lansing Taylor, Class of 1861, read a poem composed for the occasion, and “persons of recognized celebrity in letters, in science, in education, in jurisprudence, in legislation, and in diplomacy” were awarded honorary degrees. 

In the evening, all college buildings were illuminated and open for alumni and guests to visit. There was a reception in the reading room of the library, where the lights around the gallery were alternately covered in blue and white glass – Columbia’s colors. There was a “collation” (or a light meal) served in Prof. Drisler’s lecture room and the seats from the law lecture room were removed to make room for waltzing.

“Columbia’s Fair Doctors,” The Evening Sun, April 15, 1887. Founding Anniversaries Collection (Box 1, folder 5), University Archives.

The April 15, 1887 edition of The Evening Sun, reporting on the degrees, noted that Columbia “unlike Harvard, did not forget the ladies.” Harvard had just celebrated its 250th anniversary in 1886. They did not award an honorary degree to a woman until Helen Keller in 1955

[1] Barnard, Frederick A. P., et al., New York, 1887 March 7, To the Trustees, 1887. Columbia College Papers, Box 58, University Archives.