Fellows Promote Genius

Continue Tradition

In the 1920s, Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1877, and Professor of Biological Chemistry Lawrence Joseph Henderson grew dissatisfied with what they saw as the rigid formalization of higher education.

Harvard, in their opinion, had grown so much that there was little room left for intellectual exploration. Something had to be done.

"I do not want to depreciate the Ph.D., but to provide an alternative path more suited to the encouragement of the rare and independent genius," Lowell said at the time.

In 1926, Henderson and several colleagues--including Professor of English John Livingston Lowes, Boston lawyer and Corporation member Charles P. Curtis '14 and Professor of Philosophy Alfred North Whitehead--produced a report proposing a solution.

The report discussed the value of a fellowship offered at Trinity College--a fellowship that Professor Whitehead had himself won--and suggested that Harvard found one of its own. They also recommended that a 200-person honors college be established as a subset of Harvard.


The honors college never materialized. And Lowell sought funds for the fellowship program without success.

With the fate of his dream in the balance, Lowell decided to give one million dollars of his own money, anonymously, to get the new Society of Fellows off the ground.

"The result was that, there being no visible source of the necessary funds," Lowell wrote, "I gave it myself, in a kind of desperation, although it took nearly all had."

The Society of Fellows was created in 1933. Sixty-one years later, it boasts 14 Noble Laureates, 50 current Harvard faculty members and famous names like McGeorge Bundy, B.F. Skinner, and Stanley Cavell.

Today, the society still provides what Lowellwanted for it: "an alter native path more suitedto the encouragement of the rare and independentgenius." It serves as a recruiting ground of sortsfor high-caliber faculty.

"The purpose of the Society is to give men andwomen at an early stage of their scholarly careersan opportunity to pursue their studies in anydepartment of the University, free from formalrequirements," explains a description published bythe society.

The society, which maintains offices at 78 Mt.Auburn St. and a dining room in Eliot House'sMentry, is composed of 12 senior fellows whoselect eight junior fellows annually for thethree-year fellowships. The senior fellows, whohold long-term appointments, are Harvard facultymembers.

The senior fellows begin the admissions processby sending letters to universities and researchinstitutions around the world, solicitingnominations for the upcoming year's juniorfellows.

After receiving nominations, the senior fellowswrite the nominees for applications. From morethan 200 applications, the pool is reduced toabout 40 people who are flown to the Society'soffices at 78 Mount Auburn Street for interviews.

"Young scholars are invited to join the Societynot primarily for what they have accomplishedunder the demands of traditional education, butrather for their intellectual promise andcapability of independent, original contributionin their field of endeavor," explains a brochurepublished by the society in 1972.

When the society began in 1933, Lowell and thefour men who wrote the report were all seniorfellows. In their first year, they invited sixjunior fellows, three of whom had graduate summacum laude from the College.