In 1888, the process of awarding the prestigious Bowdoin Prize began routinely: Harvard students anonymously submitted their best essays in English or translated into Greek or Latin in hopes of receiving the honor and impressive sum of as much as $100. Contest judges also assessed essays submitted by female students at the University’s “Annex” (later Radcliffe College), but the winners didn’t receive University recognition or funds — an outside donor supplied an award of $30.
By accident or subversion (the events were disputed in The Crimson), the men’s and women’s papers were submitted together that year, and a classics essay called “The Roman Senate Under the Empire” by E.B. Pearson received top prize. It was quickly discovered that Pearson was actually Miss E.B. Pearson. The faculty swiftly ruled out her piece for contention, and the runner-up (a man) received $75 in her stead. Pearson received the $30 Annex prize, “thus paying $70 outright for the privilege of being a woman,” according to a Boston Post newspaper article from the time.
The incident was one of many surprising and thought-provoking discoveries in Harvard’s history of classics education for Irene Peirano Garrison while she developed the new Latin prose composition course, “Doing Things with Latin: Syntax and Stylistics.”
“Students at Harvard have learned to write in Latin since the founding of the University in 1636, and in planning the course I began by looking at the history of how, why, and to whom the Latin language, and specifically Latin composition, was taught at Harvard,” said Peirano Garrison, Pope Professor of the Latin Language and director of graduate studies in the classics.
Peirano Garrison wanted to include stories like that of Pearson and the gendered restrictions of the Bowdoin Prize along with more traditional aspects of classics pedagogy in the class, because “I realized that one could tell the history of the University, and even arguably of higher education, through the lens of how Latin was taught at Harvard.”