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"That the Reverend President be desired to accept Doctoratus in Theologica, and that A Diploma be drawn up by the Corporation & presented to him.... That Mr Jno Leverett & Mr Wm Brattle be by ye President admitted ad gradum Baccalaureatus in Theologica, they first making each of them A Sermon in Latin in Ye Colledge Hall, & Responding to A Theologicall Question."
The quaint language of this citation graces the first of the 1750 Harvard honorary degrees awarded since the days of President Increase Mather. Since 1692, the College has given special awards--M.A., S.T.D., LL.D., M.D., D.M.D., S.D., Art D Litt. D., Mus. D., and D.H.L.--to outstanding men and, since 1955, to women also. The honorary degree thus ranks as one of Harvard's longest-standing traditions--one that arouses the most national interest of any Commencement exercise in the country.
In the 267 years since the first honorary doctorate, given to President Mather, the character of the degrees and the qualifications of the recipients have changed. Once reserved almost exclusively for New England theologians, honorary degrees have since been awarded to historians, critics, poets, philosophers, military heroes, and nuclear scientists. Degrees have been democratized and those honored have come increasingly from non-theological professions.
The change in emphasis from recognition of other-worldly to more secular men can be shown by one simple statistic. In the quartercentury 1775-1800, fully 28 per cent of the honorary degrees awarded were S.T.D.'s--the doctorate of theology. President Mather himself became an S.T.D. But in the 184 years since 1875, a mere four and one-half per cent of the total number of honorary degrees have been awarded to theologians.
Harvard's increased recognition of statesmen, scientists, or educators can be traced to the change in character of the College as a whole. No longer a training school for the Congregational ministry. Harvard has evolved almost steadily toward greater variety of interests--and this has been reflected in the distribution of honoraries given out each June.
Another major change in the honorary degrees lies in the grade of award accorded. Once the master's degree--the M.A.--was given more often than the doctorate, and until the Revolutionary War, honorary M.A.'s outnumbered any of the types of degrees. On Thursday morning, however, the newly-recognized doctors will far outnumber those receiving an M.A. diploma.
The honorary Master's certainly is not a relic of the past. Although definitely secondary to doctorates on Commencement Day, the M.A. award still fulfills two major functions. First, the M.A. may be used to honor those without a college education who have completed noteworthy service. Ernie Pyle, famed World War II correspondent, was voted an honorary M.A. before his death: since he had not graduated from any college, the Corporation awarded him a Master's degree. The M.A. is often given to those distinguishing themselves in areas little noticed by the public, especially those within the confines of the University.
The Master's degree has a second, more symbolic purpose at Harvard. The ranks of the professors are traditionally somewhat chilly toward colleagues from other institutions. And so, "ut in grege nostro numeretur," each Assistant Professor gaining tenure receives an M.A. Since 1942, this degree has been awarded automatically unless the new Associate Professor has already earned his M.A. at the University.
Strange as it may seem, Harvard has even awarded honorary Bachelor's degrees--but these are probably the rarest of the rare honors. Only five such awards were ever made, and the most recent was given in 1834. Honorary B.A.'s have bowed to the times, for recognition by the College merits more than the humble Bachelor's degree.
Despite, or perhaps on account of the long history of honorary degrees at Harvard, there is no real agreement on the first recipient of a special award. Intellectual historians point to Nathaniel Appleton, a Cambridge minister who received the S.T.D. in 1771, as the first undisputed honorary doctor. They eliminate seventeenth-century tutors William Brattle and John Leverett, for they were required to prepare a "Theological" dissertation; President Mather received his award to enhance his position atop the Harvard hierarchy.
Appleton, whose name has been preserved in the chapel portion of Memorial Church, thus became the first honorary degree holder for services rendered outside the University. This trend--recognition of gifted men for work in all areas of knowledge, perhaps beyond the confines of the Yard--has been maintained and expanded to the present day.
Fitting the Awards
John Winthrop, then a member of the faculty, later President, received the first Harvard honorary LL.D. in 1773. When given at the College, especially in the last century, the LL.D. covered far more than civil and canon law, as shown by John Greenleaf Whittier's recipience of this degree. The citations on the LL.D. degrees referred to "laws of nation," "divine laws," "laws of art," or other such euphemisms during this century to square the degree with the achievement of the recipient.
Throughout most of the nineteenth century, the LL.D. was regarded as the highest honor accorded by Harvard. Until after the Civil War, it clearly outranked the other honorary degrees, which at that time included the M.A., S.T.D., and M.D. Now there is no "rank list" of honorary doctorates, since all awards recognize high degrees of individual merit. To correlate better the degree with achievement, many new types of award have been established.
This greater amount of correlation can be shown by the history of the doctorate in science. Established in 1887, the number of S.D. degrees awarded has grown almost steadily since then. In fact, this degree has become the third most numerous Harvard honorary award, ranking close behind the LL.D. and the M.A.
Some honorary awards, however, have been little used after their establishment. An honorary degree in Medicine was first given in 1783, and during the first part of the nineteenth century the special M.D. became a fairly regular Commencement award. With the introduction of the doctorate in science the M.D. fell into disuse. It was revived in 1909 for Charles William Eliot in recognition of his reorganization of the Harvard Medical School, but has not been awarded since. The Doctorate of Dental Medicine, which was first given out in 1870, has likewise had little use.
One of the greatest steps in the broadening of awards came after the turn of the present century when Harvard started to give full recognition for artistic achievement, especially in the realm of fiction. During the nineteenth century, doctorates accorded Whittier or Richard Henry Dana, for example, did not cite their literary merit as much as their work in the Harvard community. The commemoration of the vital role of the artist in society had to await the institution of the proper degrees.
In the years 1906 and 1907, two honorary awards were instituted which finally opened the way for recognition of artistic achievement. Established in 1906, the Doctorate of Art (Art D.) has been awarded quite frequently. The Litt. D.--Doctor of Literature--has also been utilized by the College many times since 1907. The very first Litt.D. went then to one of the most famous names on the roster of all-time Faculty greats, George Lyman Kittredge. His high degree of academic learning, belying his 47 years of age, has seldom been equalled in any honorary degree winner.
Henry James rightfully inaugurated the awards for fiction given by Harvard. His Litt. D. in 1911 has been followed by degrees to James Gould Cozzens, John P. Marquand, and others; many famed historians whose writings may rank high on the best-seller list have also been accorded the Litt. D. Men honored in this fashion include Samuel Eliot Morison, George Macauley Trevelyan, Bruce Catton, and Frederick Merk.
The youngsters in the family of doctorates include the doctorate of Music (Mus. D.), first established in 1936, and the Doctor of Humane Letters (D.H.L.), given initially in 1936, to Alumni Bulletin writer David McCord. Thus, the spectrum of the honorary degree has expanded so that it includes nearly every conceivable area of accomplishment.
Harvard honoraries continued to catch up with the times four years ago with the recognition of "the other half"--the females. Helen Keller's award in 1955 was followed in 1957 by a doctorate for Lady Barbara Ward Jackson. Last year, both Nadia Boulanger (Mus. D.) and Eleanor Glueck (S.D.) were honored. These recent awards silenced many criticisms of the "discriminatory" system followed before 1955. By making Harvard honoraries open to both sexes, the Corporation continued the process of liberalization of degrees that started with John Winthrop and his 1773 LL.D.
To protect Harvard from awarding degrees to possibly undesirable people, all those recommended for honoraries must pass a triple test. A special standing committee of the Corporation, established in 1881, meets during the year to judge the qualifications of outstanding men and women. (Some people have tried to promote themselves directly as worthy recipients of doctorates, but as far as one expert upon honoraries knows, no such effort has ever succeeded.) The President of the University may direct suggestions to the committee, but the committee alone can make recommendations for further consideration.
After discussion among members of the standing committee, the4MERK
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