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  • Working Class Professors in the Nineteenth Century February 24, 2017

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

    Imagine that you are born in the industrial heartlands of England to a working class family in the mid nineteenth-century. Aged six you are already sent out to earn a crust: let’s say you have to drive a donkey for a cruel master. You never get an education worth the name and still by your early teens you have only rudimentary literacy. What are the chances that you will get to university and join the professional classes? Well, the chances were not good, but sometimes there were remarkable turn arounds. The biographical sketch above is based on the life of Joseph Wright (the only thing made up is the cruel master) who became professor of comparative philology at Oxford at forty six: he is pictured above. Wright lectured to his students with a notable Yorkshire accent. For him it was a badge of pride. Wright’s life was a remarkable exception to the rule. He achieved what he achieved through sheer bloody will and a brilliance that created one of the great works of Britain’s golden age of scholarship; Wright’s six volume Dialect Dictionary. But how frequently did men like Wright manage to climb up into the ivory towers of Cambridge and Oxford? There are other examples of poor boys who become professors or writers. For example, Alfred Russel Wallace impressed his scientific peers: indeed, it was some of Wallace’s writings that encouraged Darwin to publish The Origin of Species earlier than Darwin would have liked. Wallace saw his family’s wealth destroyed in his teens and had to leave school at fourteen. Dickens, of course, became the most celebrated writer in the world in his lifetime despite his family’s financial difficulties in his adolescence that saw the writer, famously, work in a blacking warehouse. But the key for understanding both these men is that, whatever their woes, they came from middle class backgrounds, and had fairly comfortable childhoods. They certainly learnt to read and write in their formative years. So were there other cases, from nineteenth-century Britain, of men rising from the lower working classes to professorial chairs as Wright did? Beach has not been able to find other cases, though he sincerely hopes that they exist, if not in Britain in other countries: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com British science is particularly interesting here in that the culture of working class nature clubs created a democratic spirit between the professors and the drones out in the towns and cities. Surely somewhere this will have led to an unexpected elevation.

    Thanks to Mike Dash, 25 Feb 2017: I’m glad to report that you’re right in suspecting there must have been other examples of university professors raising themselves from origins in the working class prior to the last 100 or so years – though it is very noticeable that all the careers I am familiar with were forged in then “new” subjects such as languages. Among several impressive examples, I note another philologist, Alexander Murray, D.D. (1775-1813), the son of a shepherd who rose from a boyhood spent herding sheep in Galloway to be appointed Professor of Hebrew and Oriental Languages at Edinburgh. Murray’s father was too poor to send him to school, but taught him to read by purchasing a Shorter Catechism which was prefaced ‘by the alphabet in its various forms, and a few exercises in monosyllables.’ As the family could not afford writing implements, Murray spent his early years writing with the end of a burned stem of of heather. He taught himself French and Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Visigothic, German, Welsh, and eventually Hebrew, Amharic and Arabic, making most of his progress by comparative study of Bibles printed various languages. As a result, Murray was invited to travel to the university at Edinburgh at age 19, and eventually came to the attention of George III as probably the only man in the British empire capable of translating a letter in Amharic that had unexpectedly arrived from the Ethiopian governor of Tigre. He was appointed to a professorship in 1812, and, in gratitude for his services on the occasion of the Amharic letter, the king rewarded his wife with a £80 annual pension when he died aged just 37. Another scholar from a humble background who made a success of his facility with languages was Samuel Lee (1783-1852), educated at a rural charity school, who became professor of Arabic and then regius professor of Hebrew at Cambridge despite having started his working life by being apprenticed to a Shrewsbury carpenter at the age of 12. His lucky break came when the Church Missionary Society was persuaded to bankroll his education at Cambridge in 1813.

    Thanks to Ruth B., 25 Feb 2017:  Booker T. Washington, rose from slavery and a working class background. Where would we be without peanut butter, among other of his discoveries. Carl Friedrich Gauss, though he was actually 18th century, (I think) who was a mathematical genius and kept the books for his father’s business. And on whom I can possibly blame my miseries with algebraic equations. Possibly, William Holmes McGuffey of the famous readers for those who want to read.

    Bruce T, 25 Feb 2017: Try Booker T. Washington. Born into slavery in 1856, worked in the salt works and coal mines to save money for an education and was appointed president of the then new Tuskegee Institute. He help to form a playing leading role in the incipient Civil Right movement of the late 19th/early 20th cen. and held dozens of patents due to his work in chemistry and agriculture. He was possibly the the most famous African American leader of time.

    Thanks to Norm, 25 Feb 2017: ‘In a speech delivered on November 15, 1867, Douglass said: “A man’s rights rest in three boxes. The ballot box, jury box and the cartridge box. Let no man be kept from the ballot box because of his color. Let no woman be kept from the ballot box because of her sex.” Douglass spoke at many colleges around the country. These included Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, in 1873.’ : from Wikipedia  I love Douglass’ tale of the day he had enough. Beat his owner to the ground with a frozen ox hide, he did.  The man never sat a university chair but he fits some of your quest for self made academics.