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The Titanic and Harvard's Widener Library

Posted by Josh Rothman  April 11, 2012 04:23 PM

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April 15th might be Tax Day, but it's also the hundredth anniversary of an even bigger disaster, the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. There's a lot to know about the Titanic (earlier this week, some Twitter users were only just realizing that the Titanic was real, and not just a movie), but here's a Boston connection you might not know about: The money to build Harvard University's famous Widener Library was given by a mother, Eleanor Elkins Widener, to remember her bibliophile, Harvard-grad son, Harry Elkins Widener, who died on board the Titanic, along with his father, at the age of 27.

The Wideners were an incredibly wealthy and philanthropic family from Philadelphia (the family money came from steel and tobacco, among other things), and Eleanor was on board the Titanic with her son Harry and husband George, plus her maid, Amalie Gieger, and George's valet, Edwin Keeping. Harry, who had started collecting books while at Harvard, had been London on a collecting trip. When the ship hit the iceberg, George and Harry accompanied Eleanor and Amalie to the lifeboat, but chose to stay on board, where they died, along with Edwin. (A second edition of Francis Bacon's Essais, which went to the bottom with Harry, served as a MacGuffin in a recent historical thriller.)

That same year, Eleanor Widener gave $2 million to Harvard to construct the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library. In the Harvard Gazette, Corydon Ireland writes that Harry's younger brother, George Widener, Jr., dug the first few spadefulls of soil in February, 1913, "after a 48-hour bonfire had softened the frozen ground." The building was designed by Julian Abele, who was the first major African-American architect; today, it contains 57 miles of books. Among the volumes are 3,300 books collected by Harry Elkins Widener himself. More at the Harvard Gazette.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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