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Jared Sparks (1789-1866) stepped up to the presidency as soon as Edward Everett stepped down on Feb. 1, 1849. Students could not have been more delighted: Sparks had found favor as the first McLean Professor of Ancient and Modern History (1838). But no second golden age was at hand to rival that of President Kirkland.
Even after transferring many onerous tasks to a regent, Sparks did not enjoy his presidential duties. They never left him time enough for historical research. By Oct. 30, 1852, unstable health prompted Sparks to submit a letter of resignation. He agreed to remain until Feb. 10, 1853, when James Walker succeeded him.
The Sparks years, however brief, had their share of surprises. Sparks’s easygoing ways and “distinguished manners” (Samuel Eliot Morison) inspired more students from the South to come to Harvard. At one point, Southerners made up almost a third of the student body.
Over at the Medical School (long by then resettled in Boston), the most famous murder in Harvard history took place on Nov. 23, 1849, when John White Webster killed faculty colleague George Parkman in a dispute over a loan for which Webster provided subsequently compromised collateral. Webster was hanged for the crime on Aug. 30, 1850.
Shortly after taking office, Sparks received a letter from Sarah Pellet, a young woman who wondered whether she might be admitted to the College. On April 25, 1849, Sparks responded, indicating the practical difficulties of having a solitary woman among so many men. But his final remarks held out brighter hopes: “It may be a misfortune, that an enlightened public opinion has not led to the establishment of Colleges of the higher order for the education of females, and the time may come when their claims will be more justly valued, and when a wider intelligence and a more liberal spirit will provide for this deficiency.”
Sparks’ name is now most often invoked because of a single Harvard structure. Instead of moving to Wadsworth House in the Yard, he lived in his own dwelling at 48 Quincy St. The building was moved to 21 Kirkland St. in 1968. Today, Jared Sparks House serves as the residence of the Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church. In 1849, Sparks also moved the President’s Office from Wadsworth House to University Hall, where it remained until 1939.
President of Harvard University 1849-1853