October 23, 2000

Pioneer of Graduate Seminars in U.S.: Herbert Baxter Adams

While the six original professors hired by Daniel Coit Gilman formed the nucleus of The Johns Hopkins University in 1876, they were by no means the only faculty hired. Younger faculty appointed in 1876, and thereafter, built on a foundation and oversaw Hopkins’ entrance into the realm of world-renowned universities.

One of the most prominent of the early “second tier” of faculty was Herbert Baxter Adams. It was Adams who shaped the study of history, at Hopkins and in the world at large, into a discipline where writing was based on research and factual data rather than on bias and assumptions. Adams trained at Hopkins a generation of scholars who moved history from a branch of literature to a social science. Among these scholars were J. Franklin Jameson, Woodrow Wilson, Frederick Jackson Turner, Charles M. Andrews and John Spencer Bassett.

Adams was born in April 1850 in western Massachusetts, the youngest of three sons. His parents were of “old New England Congregationalist stock” and were determined that their sons receive a proper education. Adams graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy and entered Amherst College in 1868. Early on, Adams contemplated a career in journalism but was so moved by a lecture during his senior year at Amherst that he shifted his studies to prepare for advanced historical training.

To pursue this goal, Adams entered Germany’s Heidelberg University in 1874. He earned his doctorate with honors just two years later and returned to the United States. Given his graduate training in a German university, and Hopkins’ foundation on the German model of scholarship, perhaps Adams was drawn to Hopkins. He was granted a postdoctoral fellowship and two years later was named associate, a rank equivalent to the current assistant professor.

Hopkins seemed to be an excellent match for Adams, for he instituted the seminar method of instructing (and learning from) graduate students, a philosophy pioneered in this country by Hopkins. Rather than delivering lectures and examining the students on what they remembered, the seminar method required students to research a defined topic themselves and present their findings to the professor and the class. Participants were expected to critique fellow students’ presentations, and were graded based on their research and critiques.

Another innovation credited to Adams was the idea of training students not just for positions in academia but as public servants. He believed that training in historical research and criticism can prepare a student for a range of careers outside education. Emblazoned on the wall of his seminar room was the legend “History is past Politics, and Politics present History,” indicating Adams’ commitment to a social-scientific orientation for his seminar graduates.

Adams left his mark not just on Hopkins but on the entire historical profession when he took the lead in founding in 1883-84 the American Historical Association, which immediately became the pre-eminent scholarly organization in the field. Adams was a prolific writer, with 27 books to his name, and he established the Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science to promote historical publication.

Adams was promoted to full professor in 1891. As evidence of his prestige, he was courted by many universities in the United States and abroad, but he always chose to remain with Hopkins and lost no opportunity to compliment his institutional home. While still in his prime, he contracted a serious illness, which forced his resignation in February 1901. He died on July 30, 1901, in Amherst, Mass. In his eulogy, Woodrow Wilson paid tribute to his mentor as follows: “The thesis work done under him may fairly be said to have set the pace for university work in history throughout the United States.”

James Stimpert, of MSEL Special Collections, is Homewood archivist. This is part of an occasional series of historical pieces that will appear in the year leading up to the 125th anniversary of the founding of Johns Hopkins. Previous biographical sketches can be found at www.jhu.edu/~125th.