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Former History Dept. Chair MacCaffrey Remembered as Generous Mentor

By Yasmin Moreno, Crimson Staff Writer

History professor emeritus Wallace T. MacCaffrey, a former chair of the History Department and an avid scholar of the Elizabethan era, died Dec. 13 in Cambridge, England. He was 93.

An advisor to countless undergraduate and graduate students, MacCaffrey also wrote several influential books about high politics and policymaking in early modern Britain, including Elizabeth I, a biography of the English queen. Friends and colleagues said they remember the former Guggenheim fellow as a diligent historian and supportive mentor.

“He was a towering intellect and consummate scholar, yet he seemed so eager not to intimidate; in conversation he might share a personal detail, such as having to summon all his courage before approaching a daunting task,” Marie C. Henson ’88, one of MacCaffrey’s former students, wrote in an email to The Crimson.

Henson wrote that she first met MacCaffrey as a freshman in one of his History and Literature courses. During office hours, MacCaffrey always made students feel as if they “had done him a great favor by approaching him with a question,” she wrote. Henson added that MacCaffrey continued to play a significant role throughout her life, enthusiastically supporting her application for a Mellon Fellowship.

MacCaffrey came to Harvard in 1968 after teaching at the University of California, Los Angeles and Haverford College. He chaired the History Department at Harvard twice in an era when it was notoriously selective in awarding professorships. Along with his wife, Isabel G. MacCaffrey, he was a Lowell House affiliate, frequently interacting with undergraduates.

During his time at Haverford, MacCaffrey taught and mentored former Harvard history professor Akira Iriye, who said that he credits MacCaffrey with teaching him “how to study history [and] how to write history.

As a freshman who had recently moved from Japan, Iriye said he encountered some difficulties in his early academic work at Haverford because he was not yet fully proficient in English. But after MacCaffrey encouraged him to speak up more during class discussions, Iriye said he took his advice and “never stopped talking,” adding that he feels “personally indebted to him as a teacher.”

Isabel MacCaffrey, a former head of History and Literature at Harvard, died in 1978. When Wallace MacCaffrey retired in 1990, he moved to Girton, a village near Cambridge, England, where he served as a fellow at Trinity Hall, a college of the University of Cambridge.

According to John Morrill, a friend of MacCaffrey and a professor at Cambridge, MacCaffrey often visited the college library during his retirement, chatting with students and attempting to read the works of all the scholars that he had met in his lifetime.

Though MacCaffrey often spent time in hospitals due to physical ailments late into his life, he sustained his love for learning and habit of “devouring history books,” said David H. Sacks, a professor at Reed College and one of MacCaffrey’s former students.

“When he was in the hospital, you’d always find him with an 800-page book,” he said. “If you asked him what he thought of it, you’d have a half-hour, engaging conversation about the subject of the book and the qualities of the scholarship of the book.

Like others, Sacks called MacCaffrey a “compulsive mentor” and “truly wonderful teacher.”

A memorial service in honor of MacCaffrey will be held in Girton, England on Jan. 4.

—Staff writer Yasmin Moreno can be reached at ymoreno@college.harvard.edu.

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