The First Lady

Faculty Profile

When, in 1948, the time came to fill the newly created Zemurry-Stone Chair, the occupant had to be picked with especial care for she (the grant specified a female) would be the first woman professor in Harvard's history. The lady chosen had to be both outstanding in her field and vigorous enough to make her way in a strictly masculine universe. In both ways the choice of Helen Maud Cam was singularly fortunate, for besides being a ranking medieval historian, Miss Cam, in her late sixties, has more of an intellectual bounce and a livelier guffaw than most of her younger and graver students. And at an age when most scholars are remembering their earlier inspirations with a tepid chagrin, Miss Cam can wax enthusiastic about a book she read yesterday or a Maitland she read three decades ago. One student in her seminar on medieval documents, dizzied by her rabid interest, could only mutter; "She gets so damn excited over some dusty records."

Entering the Harvard community, where women were academically grade B citizens, she was the first and for a while the only female attending Faculty meetings. In the position of "a minority of one," she was an immediate success. "We all just went overboard for her," said a History department colleague. "One of the boys from the start, she is a person with great learning, but without even a touch of the pedant.'

With her students, Miss Cam's intense activity and interest have helped close a wide gap of age and culture. With some, she carries on a book loaning service and often serves tea in her small Chauncey St. apartment. When she lectures she seems to tell her historical story as much for herself as for her intent listeners. Seldom dramatic or humorous, her own quiet enthusiasm carries her talk and one admiring student pronounced what has been a lasting epithet: "Aha," he said, "A female Mcllwain!"

Miss Cam was born in 1885 in a tiny English village near Oxford. One of a large family she was educated at home in the "Old Victorian Tradition," a regime that supplied enough routine for a dozen lives. "I adored reading," she says. "I regarded books as an escape . . . the more unlikely reality the better I liked them." The least like Victorian reality were the medieval romances of Charlotte Young, and these Miss Cam read avidly.

Following this original historical bent she went to a London college and received a B.A. in 1902. She then got a scholarship at Bryn Mawr to write her M.A. At that time there was no one teaching in her field and no one knew much about it, so she had the run of the graduate school. "The whole thing was such a lovely joke," she recalls. "It didn't matter if I were dropped." She stayed on, and after getting her degree returned to England for a busy teaching and research life at Holloway College near London. When not teaching, or attending a class at the London School of Economics, she spent her time in the Records Office pouring over judicial documents that extended back to the time of Richard the Lion Hearted. She remembers it as "a delightful place, one met almost everyone there."


Out of this research came a flow of writings and eventually an appointment to a Cambridge lectureship. She had risen to the post of Senior University Lecturer and Director of Studies of History when President Jordan solicited her for Harvard.

Now, at the close of her academic career--for she must retire this June--Helen Cam surveys a scholarly past filled with the sense of her own growth. Almost half a century ago she backed away from humdrum Victorianism into a medieval world. "I was just a regular romantic," she recalls. Today, her historical knowledge permeates her speech and the arguments with which she defends her deeply held political opinions. Although raised in a Conservative household, she joined the Labor party and stumped the countryside making speeches for the candidates--it was her job to hold the crowd until the great man arrived.

The course of her study has also led to a small armory of academic honors. She is a member of both the British Academy and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as well as a Corresponding Fellow of the Medieval Society of America. These honors in someone else might betoken a staid and settled dignity, but in Miss Cam they are landmarks in a life that has kept forever on the move. At nearly seventy, she and her sister jostled across the United States sitting up in a train, to take a bus trip up and down the West Coast--a trip that she had never been able to afford when at Bryn Mawr.

And when faced with the problem of cooking her own meals in her Cambridge apartment, after a lifetime of eating institutional food, she rose to the occasion and according to a friend "can now jug a rabbit or produce a curry that's first rate." Viewing her own abundant activity, Miss Cam has occasional stirrings of a most Victorian solicitude. "Sometimes," she says, in a high, cultured voice, "Sometimes, I think I'm just a little too cant."