September 18, 2000

First Greek Prof, Basil Gildersleeve

Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve, Johns Hopkins’ first professor of Greek, was born in 1831 in Charleston, S.C., and was orphaned at a young age. Gildersleeve proved to be a precocious child who early on displayed a hunger for classical learning. His determination took him first to the College of Charleston, then to Jefferson College in Pennsylvania and on to Princeton, where he earned his bachelor’s degree at the age of 18. He then went to Europe for advanced studies, earning his doctorate at Gottingen in 1853, at the age of 22. Returning to the United States, he became professor of Greek at the University of Virginia in 1856.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, many faculty members at Southern universities resigned their positions to join the Confederate armies. Gildersleeve accepted a staff position in the summer of 1861, and he returned to the army each spring at the conclusion of classes. During a skirmish in the Shenandoah Valley in September 1864, Gildersleeve was delivering orders to the front when gunfire shattered his leg. Gildersleeve’s own comment on this incident summed it up: “I lost my pocket Homer, I lost my pistol, I lost one of my horses and, finally, I came very near losing my life.” As a result of this wound, he would bear a limp for the remainder of his life. During his five-month convalescence, brooding over the prospect of a postwar South dominated by the North, Gildersleeve gave serious thought to abandoning the academic life and joining the conflict in Mexico with Maximilian.

Overcoming his despair, Gildersleeve returned to the University of Virginia and resumed his duties, helping to rebuild an institution ravaged by war. In later life, he reflected on his younger years, saying, “At the University of Virginia, I learned what scholarship and toil meant in terms of growth and inner rewards.” Hundreds of students came to cherish the rigorous training they received at the hands of this Greek master. A brilliant scholar, Gildersleeve was known to be haughty and very demanding of his students, singling out with biting comments those he felt were performing below their abilities. As he matured, his attitude softened, and his classroom demeanor improved as well.

After failing to persuade a prominent Harvard scholar to relocate to the new Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Hopkins president Daniel Coit Gilman was directed to Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve. After extensive discussions, Gilman tendered an offer to Gildersleeve that the latter accepted on Dec. 11, 1875.

Gildersleeve credited Hopkins with satisfying his fondest desires. Writing in 1891, he declared, “The greater freedom of action, the larger appliances, the wider and richer life, the opportunities for travel and for personal intercourse have stimulated production and have made my last 14 years my most fruitful years in the eyes of the scholarly world.” In 1880, he founded the American Journal of Philology at Hopkins and edited the journal through its first 40 years. A memorial later declared, “Of Greek authors, there were few with whom he did not have more than a bowing acquaintance.”

Gildersleeve retired from teaching in 1915, after a professorial career spanning nearly 60 years, and passed away quietly on Jan. 9, 1924.