Campus & Community

A historical honor

7 min read

Harvard’s awarding of honorary degrees began a tradition to follow

Throughout its 364 commencements, Harvard has awarded hundreds of honorary degrees. In 1753, Benjamin Franklin was granted a master of arts degree, which is generally considered to be the first true honorary degree awarded by Harvard. The first female recipient was Helen Keller, in 1955.

The collection of recipients — from fields that range across literature, science, philosophy, mathematics, and the arts — reads like a who’s who throughout history. Among them stand George Washington, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, Robert Frost, Walt Disney, Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Mother Teresa, and Nelson Mandela.

Mandela was one of a select few who were awarded degrees at special convocations other than Commencement. The first was George Washington in 1776, shortly after he drove the British troops from Boston. More than a century and a half later, Winston Churchill received a degree during World War II. For safety reasons, his visit was unannounced; the University gathered together under the guise of an academic meeting. At his own convocation in 1998, Mandela, the anti-apartheid revolutionary who became South Africa’s first black president after being imprisoned for 27 years, received his degree.

Occasionally, a degree is awarded to someone outside the realm of academia or government. Oseola McCarty, an honorand in 1996, was forced to leave school after the sixth grade, and made a living doing laundry for the next 75 years. At 87, McCarty donated her life savings of $150,000 to help needy black college students in her hometown of Hattiesburg, Miss. She subsequently was given the Citizens Medal by President Bill Clinton.

South African President Nelson Mandela holds aloft his honorary degree at a special convocation in his honor in 1998. Mandela was an anti-apartheid revolutionary who became South Africa’s first black president after serving 27 years in prison under the white apartheid government. Photo by Mike Quan
Four-time Grammy Award-winning American opera singer Jessye Norman acknowledges applause while standing to receive her honorary degree in 1988. A dramatic soprano, Norman is a successful performer of classical music especially known for her Wagnerian repertoire. Photo by Joe Wrinn
Seiji Ozawa, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO), gestures after receiving his honorary degree at Commencement in 2000. His tenure at the BSO lasted for 29 years, the longest of any music director in its history. Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer
Jazz musician Wynton Marsalis sounds off on his trumpet at the start of Commencement in 2009, before receiving his honorary degree. Marsalis is a trumpeter, composer, teacher, and music educator. He has won nine Grammys in both jazz and classical music, as well as a Pulitzer Prize for music. Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer
Author John Updike (center) acknowledges applause after receiving his honorary degree at Harvard Commencement in 1992. Updike is flanked by molecular biologist Joan Argetsinger Steitz and violin virtuoso Isaac Stern. Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer
John Lewis (center), U.S. representative from Georgia since 1987, is touched by the audience’s ovation at the 2012 Commencement. A leader of the Civil Rights Movement, Lewis became nationally known during his prominent role in the Selma-to-Montgomery marches in 1965. Despite numerous beatings, Lewis emerged as a leader for his courage and commitment to nonviolence. Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer
Harvard benefactor Walter H. Annenberg congratulates fellow philanthropist and honorary degree recipient Oseola McCarty in 1996. Forced to leave school after the sixth grade, McCarty made a living doing laundry for the next 75 years. The 87-year-old McCarty then donated her life savings of $150,000 to help needy black college students in her hometown of Hattiesburg, Miss. She was subsequently given the Citizens Medal by President Clinton. Photo by Mike Quan
Actress Meryl Streep blows a kiss after receiving her honorary degree in 2010. Streep won the Academy Award for best actress for her roles in “Sophie’s Choice” (1982) and later for “The Iron Lady” (2011). With 18 Academy Award nominations in 35 years, Streep holds the record for most nominated actor, male or female, in film history. Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer
Architect I.M. Pei waves to the audience before receiving his honorary degree at Commencement in 1995. Born in China, Pei came to the Harvard Graduate School of Design and became a friend of the Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius. Known locally for designing the Hancock tower in Boston, Pei has designed buildings across the world. Photo by Marc Halevi
Oprah Winfrey offers a humble gesture of thanks while being awarded her honorary degree in 2013. Winfrey is an American media proprietor, talk show host, actress, producer, and philanthropist best known for her award-winning talk program “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama. Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer
Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Persian Gulf War, makes his way through the crowd in Harvard Yard before delivering his Commencement address in 1993. Powell was secretary of state from 2001 to 2005, the first African-American to serve in that position. Photo by Michael Quan
Walter Cronkite Jr. signs an autograph before receiving his honorary degree at Commencement in 1981. Cronkite was an American broadcast journalist, best known as anchorman for the “CBS Evening News” for 19 years (1962–81). He was often cited as “the most trusted man in America.”
Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi A. Annan stands to receive his honorary degree in 2004. Annan is a Ghanaian diplomat who served as the seventh secretary-general of the United Nations. He and the United Nations were co-recipients of the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize. Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer
Vaclav Havel (right), first president of the Czech Republic, is applauded by Jeremy Knowles, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, as he receives his honorary degree at Commencement in 1995. Havel was a Czech writer and dramatist who gained international fame with a human rights manifesto for which he was imprisoned. He went on to become a symbol of democracy and freedom. Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer
Mary Robinson, the 1998 Commencement speaker, smiles after receiving her honorary degree. Robinson served as the first female president of Ireland from 1990 to 1997, and was also the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer
Seamus Heaney pauses outside Massachusetts Hall before receiving an honorary degree at Commencement in 2000. Heaney, an Irish poet, playwright, and lecturer, won the 1995 Nobel Prize in literature. He was a professor at Harvard from 1981 to 1997 and its poet in residence from 1988 to 2006. Photo by Jane Reed
Benazir Bhutto (left) and Matina Horner, president of Radcliffe College, share a moment at Commencement in 1989. Bhutto served as prime minister of Pakistan (1993-96), the first woman elected to lead a Muslim state. She was later assassinated in 2007. Horner was an American psychologist who became the sixth president of Radcliffe College in 1972. Photo by Michael Quan
E.O. Wilson, the American biologist famous for his study of ants, and author Margaret Atwood, the celebrated Canadian writer of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” confer during the Morning Exercises in 2004. Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer
Mother Teresa hugs a child formerly from her orphanage after delivering the Class Day address in 1982, the day before she received an honorary degree at Commencement. She lived most of her life in India, where she set up schools, soup kitchens, and orphanages. She was awarded the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize. Photo by Joe Wrinn
Vice President Al Gore Jr. applauds at Harvard’s 1994 Commencement, where he was guest speaker. Gore served as the 45th vice president of the United States (1993–2001), under President Bill Clinton. He was the Democratic Party’s nominee for president in 2000. Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer