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History of the History Department

 

The College

Hunter College, the country’s first free teacher’s college, was established in 1870. The institution was first known as the Female Normal and High School, and then as the Normal College of the City of New York. In 1914, it adopted its current name in honor of Thomas Hunter, the College’s founder and first president. Though initially instruction focused on preparing young women for careers in teaching, Hunter quickly adopted a broader liberal arts curriculum. A summer session began in 1916. Evening and extension classes were first taught in 1917. Graduate-level study commenced 4 years later. In 1961, Hunter was incorporated into the City University of New York (CUNY). Three years later, it began admitting men. Currently enrolling more than 20,000 students, who reflect the unparalleled diversity of New York City, Hunter has grown into a comprehensive teaching and research institution.

Hunter Seal

The Department

Instruction in history dates back to 1870, when the College’s staff included two tutors in the subject (Mary Willard and Mary E. M. Carr). In the 20th century, history was taught within the Department of History and Political Science (Political Science was a minor at the time). During the 1907-1908 academic year, for example, the Department offered courses in the history of Western Europe, English constitutional history, U.S. history, and the principles of economics (at the time, economics was generally not taught separately in universities). The courses generally placed a heavy emphasis on political history, but already in these early years faculty were eager to introduce social and economic history.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Department was known as the Department of History and Social Science. It offered three majors: history, political science, and economics. In addition to longstanding offerings in U.S., European, and English history, the curriculum included courses like “Spain in America,” “Europe since the World War,” and “International Organizations.” During the Depression, the Department also hired some of its graduates as substitutes for day courses. In 1932, honors course were offered in History for the first time. A minor in economics was established to prepare young women “expecting to go into business.”

In 1939, the Department of History became self-standing. A 1941 report from the Chair put the Department’s mission this way: “We hope thus to contribute to the college-wide ideal of producing at Hunter young women educated to feel that the future is their responsibility as well as their opportunity.”

Reflecting changes at home and abroad, the curriculum expanded to social and economic history as well as the history of Latin America. The Department continued to contribute to the College’s mission of preparing high quality teachers, but it also began to emphasize civil service professions and the practice of law.

During the Second World War, the Department introduced a course titled “The Making of America,” as well as courses in the “History of the Far East” and the “History of Russia.” Beginning with the academic year 1954-1955, the Department of History offered a Masters of Arts (MA) degree in History, initially using the Princeton Graduate Record Examination as the comprehensive examination for MA candidates. A class of seven MA students enrolled that year.

The Hunter History Student Club goes back over a century. Back in the 1940s, for example, it organized trips to the nation’s capital as well as “department teas” to honor graduating students. Today, the Club is called the Historical Society of Hunter College and continues to organize academic and social events, trips, and orient students towards career opportunities.

Old Building, 1873-1936
Department Invitation, 1944

The Faculty

The Hunter history faculty has included a number of scholars who have helped establish the foundations of their fields. These include many pioneer female historians; unlike most elite institutions of higher education in the United States, Hunter involved female scholars in full-time teaching positions from early on. Dorothy Goebel (1898-1976), who taught in the department since 1926, raised through the ranks, and won a Guggenheim fellowship in 1947. Beatrice Hyslop (1899-1973), who became assistant professor in 1941, was a founder of the Society for French Historical Studies. A leading expert on public opinion during the French Revolution, she was made a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur by the French Government in 1961 for her outstanding contributions to the study of France in the United States.

Over the decades, Hunter history scholars have made important contributions to Jewish history, women’s history, and other fields. Naomi Cohen (b. 1927) was one of the country’s first female scholars in Jewish Studies and wrote a number of award-winning books. Nancy Siraisi (b. 1932), a student of Hunter medievalist Pearl Kibre (1900-1985), went on to a distinguished career as an historian of science, earning a MacArthur (genius) Fellowship. For many decades, Barbara Welter work's has helped define the field of women's history in the United States. Dolores Greenberg's writing contributed to the emerging field of environmental history.

Two past department members have served as College presidents. Mary Latimer Gambrell, who joined the Department in 1937, briefly served as Hunter’s president in 1967. John Meng, a diplomatic historian, joined the faculty in 1949 and served as president of Hunter College starting in 1960.

Current history faculty have won fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, and other distinguished scholarly awards.

Department Handout, 1970s

Source: Hunter College Archives & Special Collections.

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