Samuel Williston, Foremost Legal Scholar, Dies at 101

Samuel Williston '82, Dane Professor of Law, Emeritus, and one of the greatest teachers and scholars in the history of Harvard Law School, died yesterday morning at the age of 101. He was the oldest living alumnus of both the College and the Law School.

Williston's former students and colleagues at the Law School remember him as one of those rare, "natural" teachers. Roscoe Pound, University Professor Emeritus and a long-time friend of Williston's, yesterday said that Williston was "not only a magnificent teacher, but a natural, thorough-going, 100 per cent common-sense lawyer."

He was also one of the most prolific and esteemed legal writers of his age. His text on contracts is the classic in its field, and his work in drafting a uniform law of sales has been used as a basis for laws which appear on the statute books of three-quarters of the states.

But Williston's greatest influence was as a teacher. Before he retired from the Law School in 1938, Williston was by common consent the greatest American teacher of law. He was noted for his scholarly insight and patience, and most of all for his masterly way of handling a class.

Austin W. Scott, a successor to Williston in the Dang Professorship as well as a former student of his, noted that "there was something about Williston's manner of handling a class. Every moment was exciting."


Williston was a master of the dialectic method of teaching used in the Law School. He could always find the perfect question to lead his students to the insights he was trying to communicate, according to another former student, Arthur E. Sutherland, Bussey Professor of Law.

Williston's manner in class was always characterized by the greatest urbanity and kindliness, seasoned with an acute sense of humor. His students remember him as the last member of the Law Faculty to wear a wing collar to every lecture, displaying the mark of a true gentleman.

During his retirement, Williston's house "was regularly a scene of a pilgrimage" by members of the Law Faculty, according to Sutherland.

One of Williston's greatest desires in these last years was to become the oldest living alumnus of the College. Unfortunately, when he finally attained the honor this Fall, he was too ill to enjoy it.

Williston taught at the Law School for nearly 50 years, starting in 1890. He was named to the Dane Professorship in 1919, 24 years after he first became professor of Law. The Dane chair is reserved for experts in commercial law, and has been held by such great legal scholars as Justice Story and C. C. Langdell, who instituted the case system in law study.

Private services will be held today, and a memorial service is scheduled for tomorrow at 2 p.m. in Memorial Church, the Rev. Ralph N. Helverson presiding.