In a recent column on notable graduation speeches, I mentioned one delivered by former U.S. Senator Barney Frank to his fellow Harvard grads.
“When I was here there was still a requirement that students had to swim 50 yards to graduate … because Harry Elkins Widener had drowned with the sinking of the Titanic,” Frank said. “And it made me very grateful at the time that he had not gone down in a plane crash.”
A fuuny line, to be sure. But what's this about a swimming requirement?
Is it true that Harvard students, the cream of the American educational system, the alleged embodiment of intellectual and physical refinement, really had to swim 50 yards before the dean handed them a diploma?
And was the Titanic to blame?
Surely a U.S. senator would not engage in hyperbole.
Reader Pat Brunette (Harvard-Radcliffe, 1965) confirmed that, indeed, the 50-yard swim was once a graduation requirement:
“My strongest memory of this enchanting obligation is of not being allowed out of the pool until 11:50 a.m., having to dry off, dress, and struggle through a mile or so of snow drifts (which, of course get deeper each year I get older), to my next class, George Wald’s biology class, which started at noon. If Professor Wald ever noticed me at all, I was the one straggling in late once a week, with frozen wet hair, sitting on the stairs because his was a popular course and all the seats were taken by noon.”
“Whoever thought being able to swim for fifty yards would have saved (Harry Elkins Widener) from sinking with the Titanic must have been a bit of an optimist, but I’d like to read more about it.”
And so you shall, Ms. Brunette.
This much is true: Mr. Widener, along with his father, perished when the Titanic sunk. His mother survived.
Alas, the rest is all wet.
The legend holds that, to ensure no other Harvard man would share her son’s fate, Eleanor Widener insisted that future graduates be required to demonstrate an ability to swim. “Among the many myths relating to Harry Elkins Widener, this is the most prevalent,” says the Harvard University Library’s “Ask a Librarian” service.
“A review of records in the Harvard Archives indicates that there have been swimming requirements at various times in Harvard history, but none were related in any way to Mr. Widener or the gift of the library to Harvard by his mother ... In his 1980 publication [on Widener Library], Harvard historian William Bentinck-Smith wrote, “There is absolutely no evidence in the President’s papers, or the faculty’s, to indicate that [Harry Widener’s mother] was, as a result of the Titanic disaster, in any way responsible for [any] compulsory swimming test.”
That doesn’t necessarily ruin a good story, however.
As recently as two years ago, many schools still had the compulsory swimming requirement, among them MIT, Columbia, Bryn Mawr, Washington and Lee, Dartmouth and Notre Dame.
And like Harvard, the test has become the stuff of legends.
One such tale holds that during the 1920s, Oregon State University had such a requirement, and Linus Pauling, who would go on to win two Nobel Prizes, could not swim a stroke. It was rumored that someone donned his number and swam for him.
At Columbia, campus lore has it that a university president wanted to ensure students’ survival if Manhattan ever sank — but since engineering students could build a boat, they were exempt.
A Washington and Lee University spokesman told the Wall Street Journal that a school president from the 1910s lamented “the idleness and restless shallowness of the average undergraduate,” but it is unclear whether swimming specifically was seen as the remedy for youthful malaise. The school’s test now asks students to swim 50 yards in one minute, and then spend five minutes treading water.
At all-female Bryn Mawr, the swim requirement dates at least to 1909, said a spokesman, noting that an archivist found a clipping in the personal papers of the then-athletic director mentioning that “American mermaids are known for their hardiness and fine physiques.”
Dr. Mortimer J. Adler, who earned a PhD from Columbia University, wrote more than 30 books, taught at Columbia and was chairman of the board of editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica, was denied his bachelor’s degree by Columbia in 1923 — despite his completing their four-year curriculum in three years and finishing at the top of his class — because he failed to pass the swimming test required for graduation.
He was finally granted his degree 60 years later after informing Columbia that he had since learned how to swim and asking them to waive his disqualification.
Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. He can be reached at Nulede@Aol.Com.