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The presidency of Edward Holyoke (1689-1769) brought many distinctive features to Harvard that endure to this day. The earliest evidence for the singing of the now-traditional Commencement hymn (a setting of Psalm 78: “Give ear, my children“) comes from Holyoke’s 1737 installation. Two venerable Harvard structures arose during his term: Holden Chapel (1744) and Hollis Hall (1763). A third, Old Harvard Hall, was lost to fire in 1764 (along with nearly all the College library and scientific equipment housed within its walls). The main portion of today’s Harvard Hall replaced it in 1766.
And who bought that bizarre bit of Jacobean furniture now known as the President’s Chair? None other than Holyoke himself (who readily confessed his own ignorance of its history). The chair literally bears Holyoke’s personal impress, for he made the large oak pommels perched atop its front posts. Aptly enough, Holyoke was the first of several Harvard presidents to have his formal portrait painted while seated in this chair.
Holyoke served for just over 32 years, making his the second-longest presidency in Harvard history (only Eliot’s 40-year term was longer). Many Harvard alumni from New England who played important roles in the American Revolutionary War were educated during his relatively liberal administration. (At least as early as the 1720s, the winds of revolution had begun to blow through Commencement debates. Analysis of the nature and function of government gathered momentum in debates of succeeding decades.)
In both the humanities and the sciences, the curriculum underwent modernization, from the adoption of contemporary texts to the introduction of better science equipment and instruction. Holyoke openly supported the work of John Winthrop, the Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, who established the first experimental-physics laboratory in what is now the United States. A series of spring and fall public “exhibitions” (debates, dialogs, and orations) by upperclassmen began in 1756 and continued for more than a century.
Most crucial of all was the revamping of the old educational system under which a single tutor taught all subjects to a given class. In January 1767, tutors began to specialize by teaching only a limited number of subjects.
On June 1, 1769, shortly before his 80th birthday, this oldest of all Harvard presidents left his final distinctive mark. Speaking from his deathbed, Holyoke uttered an insight that still resonates in the ears of his successors: “If any man wishes to be humbled and mortified, let him become President of Harvard College.”
President of Harvard University 1737-1769