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"The Strange Disappearance of Sophia Smith"

Sophia Smith: Smith College's Founder

New Book Gives Belated Credit to Smith College Founder

Until recently little has been known about Smith College founder Sophia Smith (1796-1870) except that she made possible the establishment of her college with a $400,000 bequest and in the process began a new era in women's education. But a new book, "The Strange Disappearance of Sophia Smith," by Quentin Quesnell, Smith's Roe-Straut Professor Emeritus in the Humanities, documents the story of how and why public focus regarding the college's origins shifted away from Smith, about a generation after her death, and toward her pastor and adviser, the Rev. John M. Greene.

Using unpublished notebooks and archival manuscripts, Quesnell reveals that Greene spent an extraordinary amount of time and energy during his last 30 years opposing the college's first president, L. Clark Seelye, asserting his own role in founding the college, and rewriting pertinent documents.

"By the middle of the twentieth century, the woman who had been honored in the 1870s as a wise and creative founder came to seem something quite different--distant, irrelevant, a little embarrassing--while the real credit for the conception and the planning of the college went to the man behind the woman, her pastor and friend, John M. Greene," writes Quesnell.

In recording the history of Sophia Smith's receding attention in Smith lore, Quesnell has penned the most comprehensive biography available of Smith to date. He writes about her politically active family, her own political interests, her circle of visitors, travels, correspondence and financial and business acumen. He details her favorite newspapers, magazines and books she bought for herself and for the Smith Literary Society as well as her interest in women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Margaret Fuller, Lucretia Mott and other leaders of the American women's movement. The book also provides a detailed study of Sophia Smith's will, particularly of her intentions for Smith as an institution distinct from other women's colleges.

"The Strange Disappearance of Sophia Smith" was published by the college as part of its 1996 Sophia Smith Bicentennial, a year-long series of events that celebrated the founder's birth. Quesnell was a keynote speaker during that year's Rally Day festivities, which celebrate Smith women and their achievements. Smith College Provost John Connolly says that the book "represents the principal intellectual result of the Sophia Smith Bicentennial celebration."

Quesnell, who taught in Smith's religion department from 1977 through 1996 and is the author of eight books in that field, received the college's Honored Professor Award in 1991. Much of his spare time has been devoted to his hobby of local history and he has served as chair of the Northampton Historical Commission.

"The Strange Disappearance of Sophia Smith" is available for $35 at Grécourt Bookshop on Green Street and Broadside Bookshop on Main Street.

August 10, 1999


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