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Almost 13 months after Samuel Langdon’s resignation (August 1780), Harvard finally found a new president in Joseph Willard (1738-1804), whom historian Samuel Eliot Morison has pronounced successful if not great. After the short terms of his two immediate predecessors, Willard’s longevity in office alone qualifies as no small measure of success.
A far more substantive example is the founding of the Harvard Medical School in September 1782. The “Medical Institution of Harvard University” was the first faculty beyond the College. (Ironically, Willard had once aspired to become a physician.) While there are substantial grounds for considering Harvard a university even in the 17th century, the new professional school unquestionably made Harvard a university in every modern sense. (First based in Cambridge, the Medical School moved to Boston in 1810.)
Important changes also came to the undergraduate scene. Only a few weeks before Willard’s election, students formed the Harvard Chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society, which held its first Literary Exercises in 1782. PBK was only one of the many groups in which the period abounded. In 1787, French teacher Joseph Nancrède became Harvard’s first paid instructor in a modern language. (Before Nancrède’s arrival, students wishing to learn French had to use licensed outside teachers.)
Less happily for students, the Harvard Corporation tried to lessen competitive dressing in 1786 by imposing a student dress code that banned silk outright. The code further prescribed blue-gray coats and four approved colors of waistcoats and breeches, along with particulars of dress tied to one’s year in school (e.g., varied ornamental details down to the buttonholes - but nothing in gold or silver, thank you!). Students detested these onerous requirements and the punishments incurred for transgressing them.
Willard’s own sense of decorum required that students and tutors doff their hats when he entered the Yard. Such traditional formality extended to his personal contacts with students and made him seem rigid to many. Nevertheless, in 1799, Willard broke with tradition by giving his Commencement address in English instead of Latin - the first known example of a Harvard president’s use of the native tongue for this purpose.
Born in Maine, Willard showed an early knack for mathematics and navigation. He once planned on going to sea and retained a lifelong interest in science. Academically, he was a late bloomer, finishing his undergraduate degree in his late 20s. Before becoming Harvard’s chief executive, he served as the College butler, a tutor in Greek, and a Fellow of the Corporation. Willard died in office on Sept. 25, 1804.
President of Harvard University 1781-1804