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William Baskervill, the first PhD at Wofford

Written By: Phillip Stone - Feb• 08•19

William M. Baskervill’s name is unfortunately not one that comes to the forefront of Wofford’s history.

Joining the faculty in 1876, Baskervill was one of the first Wofford professors to have studied in Germany.  He was a Randolph-Macon graduate and a Tennessee native, and had met the young Charles Forster Smith, a Wofford graduate, in Germany.  Smith, who had come back to teach at Wofford in 1875, had encouraged Baskervill to join him and cover some subjects that were under-staffed, and so fresh from two years at Leipzig, Baskervill arrived at Wofford to teach Greek and English literature.

David Duncan Wallace, the college’s historian, noted that Baskervill stimulated the students and faculty alike.  His study of literature was much more scholarly than the older generation of teachers, and his methods were a bit new for the students.  Some no doubt thought he was too hard.  Some of the students found him sarcastic and impatient with them as well.  One student, Wallace noted, left a poem on the chalkboard that poked some fun back at Baskervill.  It read, in part:  Anglo Saxon and Dutch:  This is taught by Baskervill/ Who goes for it with vinn and will/ And tries so hard his class to inspire/ With his Anglo-Saxon Fire.  The class heeds not his high behest/ But utters up a strong protest/ Against each foolish innovation/ Brought hither from the German nation.”

The student who confessed to the prank was brought before the faculty for punishment.  Dr. Carlisle reportedly asked, “What are you before the faculty for?” and the student replied “Writing poetry.”  With that, the student nearly caused Carlisle to erupt in laughter, and the student managed to get away without any punishment.

In 1878, Baskervill left Wofford for further study in Germany, but the death of his wife caused him to return to the United States sooner than he planned.  He returned to complete his PhD at Leipzig in the summer of 1880, while remaining on the Wofford faculty, and thus became the first faculty member to earn a PhD while teaching at Wofford. His dissertation, a copy of which is in the archives, was entitled “The Anglo-Saxon Version of the Epistola Alexandri ad Aristotelem.”

He did not remain at Wofford long, like his contemporaries Charles F. Smith and James H. Kirkland who had helped move to a greater emphasis on scholarship, he moved on to Vanderbilt.  In Nashville, he taught both Henry Nelson Snyder and David Duncan Wallace, both of whom came to dominate Wofford during much of the 20th century.  He spent the rest of his life at Vanderbilt, but his untimely death in 1899 cut short a flourishing academic career.

Baskervill may not rank up there with Gamewell for longevity, or with Carlisle, Snyder, Wallace, Chiles, and  several others in terms of recognition.  However, his time at Wofford marks a shift toward greater scholarship among the faculty, and he set a tone of increased rigor in teaching.  Numerous faculty who came after him were much closer to his style than they were to those who came before him.

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