Laura Drake Gill

Laura Drake Gill

Laura Drake Gill, the third dean of Barnard College, was born in Chesterville, Maine. She attended Smith College, specializing in mathematics and received a bachelor’s degree in 1881 and a master’s degree in 1885. She later became president of the Smith alumnae association. After further study in Europe at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, the University of Leipzig in Germany, and the Sorbonne in France, she received a doctorate degree in civil law from the University of the South. Excepting the time she took off to pursue her master’s degree and advanced study in Europe, Gill taught mathematics at Miss Capen’s School in Northampton, Massachusetts, where Smith is located, from 1881 to 1898.

In 1898, at the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, Gill joined the Red Cross and was among the first group of nurses sent to Cuba. She was put in charge of hospital affairs in Cuba, a position she later continued in New York and Tennessee, selecting and placing nurses in army hospitals. Gill was also in charge of the Cuban Orphan Society, where she helped to secure homes and education for orphans. Her work in Cuba established her reputation as both an educator and a leader, and in 1901 she was appointed dean of Barnard College.

Under Gill, Barnard’s campus expanded in size to three-and-a-half acres, after a generous donation by Elizabeth Milbank Anderson, who earlier donated Milbank Hall. Barnard’s endowment also grew to over half a million dollars, thanks in part to John D. Rockefeller. Barnard’s enrollment increased, necessitating the building of Brooks Hall, a residence hall. During this time, Barnard’s Greek Games were started. Gill’s relations with Columbia president Nicholas Murray Butler became increasingly strained, and in 1907 she resigned as dean.


September 4, 2017

The Misbegotten Gill Deanship
Dean Emily James Smith, made Emily James Smith Putnam upon her marriage to George Haven Putnam in the summer of 1899, resigned as dean effective February 1, 1900,  in anticipation of childbirth. Her abbreviated tenure,  what Low called her surprise resignation”  and the gender-specific reason prompting it led  President Low to urge that her successor be a man.  To this end he appointed the historian James Harvey Robinson, a popular instructor of history at both Barnard and Columbia, as acting dean. Although Mrs. Anderson had wanted Putnam to resign upon her marriage, she opposed the idea of  a male dean for Barnard and urged fellow trustee Brownell to convey her sentiments to Low, a personal friend. This Brownell did, arguing that “I cannot avoid feeling that the financial support of Barnard is quite as essential as her new administration, and that that support depends upon women , whom Barnard, therefore, can not afford to alienate.” Although Low ceded the point in this instance, he refused Brownell’s request the intercorporate agreement be altered to make the  Barnard deanship limited to women. A search was then undertaken, in  Anderson played a leading role, and on January 11, 1901, the then  41 year old Laura Drake Gill was named Barnard’s second dean. She proved to be a bad choice. During her 7-year deanship of the progress that Smith, in active collaboration with Columbia President Seth Low, had made toward securing  Barnard a stable future, was undone.

Gill’s service as a hospital administrator in Cuba following the American assault in the summer of 1898  brought her to the Barnard board’s attention. Born and raised in rural Maine, a Smith graduate, with some graduate work in mathematics, she had taught mathematics as Smith’s preparatory school in Northampton before joining the Red Cross. That she was single and available were in her favor, while the fact that she was a stranger to New York and, as it turned out, hostile to urban life, seem not to have been thought disqualifying.  In her very first dean’s report to her trustees, New Yorkers to the person,  she declared “the provincialism of a great city” to be ‘that most unlovely form of provincialism.”

Within nine months of Gill’s  appointment rumor reached Treasurer Plimpton that Miss Gill had resigned in an early meeting she had with Columbia’s equally new but decidedly more commanding president Nicholas Murray Butler, already having earned the sobriquet from Theodore Roosevelt of “Nicholas Miraculous.” Unlike Low, who allowed Smith the courtesy of treating Barnard like a partner in the larger university enterprise who reported to her board of trustees, Butler expected all the deans of Columbia’s schools  to report directly  to him and not to the Barnard board, upon which he sat ex officio.  It took Gill several years to grasp  Butler’s  notion of their relationship and too late to salvage  even the semblance of mutual trust. Butler also blamed Gill for rendering Barnard’s principal benefactor, Mrs. Anderson, unwilling to direct some of her largesse Columbia’s way.

In other matters big and small she offended people those she needed as allies. An example of the former: Whereas the 1900 intercorporate agreement gave Barnard full responsibility for the undergraduate instruction of women within the University, it did not take into account was that Teachers Colleges, also a party to the agreement , had among its women students some  who did not possess ABs.  Rather than propose an amicable resolution to this situation with a sister institution with overlapping missions, Gill insisted that TC honor the agreement by turning over responsibility for instructing its enrolled undergraduates to Barnard. In pressing Barnard’s case, she made some publicly disparaging remarks about the quality of the students attending TC.  Although she had her way in this dispute, it earned her and Barnard the enmity of TC Dean James Earl Russell and ended prior space-sharing arrangements worked out by her predecessor in which Barnard students had use of the TC gymnasium.

In lesser matters Gill was equally maladroit. In 1902  she permanently offended trustee Meyer by letting the College’s Steinway piano to go out of tune. Gill also alienated a leading young alumna and future chronicler, Alice Duer Miller, by declining her request in 1905 for a part-time teaching appointment without salary, presumably because Miller was married.  Three months after being rejected, Miller, a future chronicler of Barnard’s history, organized a group of 14 Barnard alumnae from 8 different classes who wrote to President Butler asking him “to consider the removal of Miss Gill.” Among their complaints was her “imposing on Barnard the attitude of isolated colleges.” But their most  damning indictment: “She is not a New Yorker.”

The following spring, Gill declined to renew the appointment of a popular English instructor and alumna, another active alumna, Virginia Gildersleeve. Here again she demonstrated a real flare for offending those who could retaliate. When Gildersleeve came to account  a half-century later for her decision in 1911 to accept the Barnard deanship, she said she did so to undo the damage done to her Barnard by the outsider Gill.

An example of Gill’s innocence of the folkways of Gotham was her  attempt, prior to the Steinway kerfuffle,  to help Annie Nathan Meyer find an appropriate school for the trustee’s only daughter,  Margaret. When several of City’s fashionable day schools, all  with Columbia officials on their boards,  had declined to consider Margaret because she was Jewish, Mrs. Meyer had complained directly to President Butler, but to no effect. Dean Gill then suggested Margaret apply to the Sacks Collegiate Institute, only to receive from Meyer this lesson in New York intra-tribal distinctions:

I do not like the atmosphere of the Sacks School simply because the girls there come
almost exclusively from a wealthy lass – one which has not had the stability of
generations of wealth – and which is unfortunately an intensely materialistic  classs.
Margaret comes from a family in America since the 17th century and I do not care
— another reason – to have her in such an exclusively German atmosphere.

It may have been Gill’s tone deafness in matters ethnic and social that left her out of surviving discussions  throughout her deanship occupying the boards of both Columbia and Barnard  —  the former explicitly,  the Barnard board inferentially —  on the subject that at Columbia went by the anodyne label, “the Hebrew Problem.”


Bob McCaughey
September 4, 2017


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.