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Faculty Profile

Charles Howard McIlwain


Now approaching middle age, 75-year-old Professor Charles Howard McIlwain is due to retire at the end of the present term. He leaves Harvard as the world's foremost authority on the background of the English Constitution, a subject satisfying his real love for history, though he officially labors under the title of Eaton Professor of the Sciences of Government.

Pennsylvania born Professor McIlwain graduated from the College of New Jersey, an institution which has since degenerated into Princeton University. After a brief fling at law, a career which he found less interesting than the study of legal theory, he re-entered the academic world, first as a prep-school Latin instructor and track coach, then as a history professor at Miami (Ohio), Princeton, and Bowdoin. He came to Harvard in 1911 and in 1926 he received the Eaton Professorship.

His first book, "The High Court of Parliament," written in 1910, brought him immediate recognition as an eminent scholar. Since then he was written many other books, including the "American Revolution," which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923. A past president of the American Historical Society, he is a prominent member of numerous American and British historical associations. He has done a great deal of research in England, and as recently as 1944 he was a resident member of Balliol College, Oxford.

During the years in which he was forging his intellectual reputation, Professor McIlwain, known informally as "Mae," established himself as one of the faculty's most enthusiastic and unorthodox tennis players. Though he has not played during the past three or four years, he denies that he has given up the game. During his temporary abandonment of tennis, classical music and the search for old books compete for his leisure hours.

In his historical research, Professor McIlwain has managed to avoid the catacombs of Widener by accumulating a sizable library of his own, a library which includes books in German, French, Latin, and assorted languages. Located in a large and pleasant room, book-lined on all sides, it contains many classic and compendious volumes of which the oldest book is a 1478 edition of "Augustinus Triumphus," beautifully done on what he calls "real paper, not this cheap modern stuff."

Besides this quiet library there is no other place about his Belmont home that is like a scholar's retreat. Professor McIlwain and his family share the rambling, three-story house with his "houn" pack--three cocker spaniels and a German shepherd. Lizzie, the shepherd, is a rather lethargic creature, but the cockers, trailing a flying wake of carpets, play a floppy-eared game of follow the leader in and out of doorways, up and down the stairs.

"Mae's" black pipe, charred and chewed, is almost as famous as his classroom ritual "Now you can see at once"--a hopeful, declaration usually followed by the most profound point of the day's lecture. His lectures are invariably provocative and stimulating, and his students can hardly escape acquiring his scholarly attitude.

When he retires this summer, Professor McIlwain will move to his 150 acre farm in Maryland, where he will busy himself with book-writing. Though reluctant to reveal his subject matter, he says, with a canny Scotch eye on the best-seller list, "Stories of personal experience on the farm, such as "The Egg and I'm seem to be selling well. 'Maybe I can write something like 'The Professor and the Pig.' "

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