Portraits of Harvard Figures

Wilbur C. Abbott Francis Lee Higginson Professor of History

A short, squat, bowlegged manifestation of dignity is waddling up Mass. Avenue towards the Square. He probably stops at the sign of Billings and Stover; for this is midafternoon, and the Professor must tighten his belt with the traditional milkshake. Emerging, he will puff out his lips, tap his black cane contentedly on the sidewalk, and roll on his way. Pausing a moment, he will reach into his pocket, pick out the cigar he had not smoked during some faculty meeting and give it to the blind news dealer. Again the puff, the cane, and the bow legs swing into action, as their owner heads for home. Even the taxi men may smile. They know him. He is "the stout feller with the black stick who lives in the red house on Sparks St."

This pedestrian, one need scarcely add, is Wilbur Cortez Abbott, Francis Lee Higginson Professor of History. This is the Squire of Sparks St. the insatiable collector of this and that, the indefatigable narrator of faded stories, the herenow admirer of Oliver Cromwell. This is he who was called from Yale in 1920 to fill the eight-league boots of Mr. Harold Laski.

There is very little available material on Professor Abbott's early years. He was born, according to Who's Who, in Kokomo, Indiana on December 28, 1869. His undergraduate memories center around Wabash College, which graduated him at the age of twenty-three. From that date he studied and taught at Cornell, Michigan, Dartmouth, Oxford, and Kansas,--until he was found and hired by Yale in 1908. There, in 1917, he gained wide scholastic attention. He had, for some time, been intrigued with the notions of the sociological historians. He had, for some time, been laboring with 350 years of facts, pictures, and costumes. And in 1917, he published that momentous and dull work, "The Expansion of Europe."

When three years had rolled by, and Laski had departed, Wilbur Cortez Abbott, therefore, was the natural choice for the vacancy. As expected, he dropped snugly into the atmosphere of Brattle Street. His speculation was undramatic, his sufficient works dealt with the dead past, his lectures with innocuous anecdotes and data. He became, in the course of time, a stock-holder in the Harvard Cooperative Society, and an Associate of Lowell House; he acquired the grey hair and the mien of a Bank President. He fitted; he fits; he will fit.

Professor Abbott is perfectly comfortable, perfectly at home on the lecture platform. He seats himself in a swivel chair, places his notes and his elbows on the desk, gives vent to a sigh, perhaps even a puff, and begins. Fifteen minutes contain a dignified, non-irritating drone, dedicated to the fact that Gladstone had gained a reputation as a great minister of finance. Then there may be an interruption. The professor will rub his eyes. He will give assurances that the following story is amusing. The story will consume five minutes. There will be renewed assurances that the story was amusing. The lecture will proceed.


When freed from his academic duties, Professor Abbott finds refuge "in the red house on Sparks St." Like Sir Christopher Wren, Wilbur Cortez Abbott has builded his own monument. Within the walls of 74 Sparks St. he has assembled all the evidence that one could need for an analysis of his mental processes. He has a beautiful collection of unused chessmen; sundry gargoyles stare out from his walls; there is a mug used at Nicky's coronation; framed on the wall hang a pair of European Court Fans; on a window seat, in the sun, sparkles a jewel handled Moorish Scimitar; and over there, in a glass case, is a death mask of Oliver Cromwell, Upstairs are the proud portraits of Cromwell and the collection of tools. In some dark closet hangs the Frock Coat, which the Professor will don each Sunday teatime.

After this brief introduction, one is scarcely surprised to learn that Professor Abbott's interests also include Gilbert and Sullivan's "Iolanthe," the movies, Horticulture Exhibits, and Ping Pong; one is not startled when Professor Abbott attracts some student's attention by planting the black stick firmly upon the latter's abdomen.

One incident in Professor Abbott's career will round out the picture. Some three years ago, the Professor landed in Finland only to discover that he was something of a national figure. He was feted; he was invited to important function; his picture was printed in the papers. Professor Abbott has always been fond of Finland