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Helen North—Brilliant, Gracious Scholar


Helen North supported generations of students.

The campus community was saddened by the death of Centennial Professor Emerita of Classics Helen North, on Jan. 21. More than just a brilliant scholar and teacher, North cultivated relationships among Swarthmore students for more than 60 years. Gentle and gracious, with a robust and ready sense of humor, she was fiercely and firmly committed to intellectual excellence and the highest ethical standards. Her students loved her for these characteristics and because she so successfully modeled for them the joy in living the life of the mind.

“Under Helen North’s leadership, the Classics Department, in the best Swarthmore tradition, valued scholarship highly but teaching even more highly, in our case rooted in strong language teaching,” says Gilbert Rose, Susan Lippincott Professor Emeritus of Modern and Classical Languages. “She was a woman of enormous accomplishment.”

“Professor North was the most lovely, supportive, and wise friend one can have,” adds Professor of Classics Rosaria Munson. “I think that she had literally hundreds of friends who benefited from her affection and learning.”

North joined Swarthmore’s faculty in 1948, and although the College served as her longtime home, she also held visiting teaching appointments at several institutions, including Cornell University, where she had earned undergraduate and graduate degrees. She also served as Classicist-in-Residence at the American Academy in Rome and held two teaching and research posts at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens.

North received many major academic awards to support her scholarly work, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Fulbright Program, Ford Foundation, National Humanities Center, and the Guggenheim Foundation. A prolific writer, she was the author of Sophrosyne: Self-Knowledge and Self-Restraint in Greek Literature (1966), her first book and a still much-cited work for which she received the Goodwin Award of the American Philological Association in 1969. North is also the author of From Myth to Icon: Reflections of Greek Ethical Doctrine in Greek Literature and Art (1979), in addition to dozens of articles and reports in classical and professional publications.

For her years of service, she received the American Philological Association’s Distinguished Service Medal and the Centennial Medal of the American Academy in Rome as well as honorary doctorates from Trinity College in Dublin, Fordham University, Yale University, and La Salle University, where she was a longtime trustee.

Although she retired from teaching at Swarthmore in 1991, North remained thoroughly engaged with the College community. Until recently, she continued to meet weekly with her colleagues in classics to read, translate, and discuss Greek poetry. She also regularly attended the yearly lecture given in her name. Alan Shapiro ’71 gave this year’s talk on March 29. Although she found herself in some demand as a candidate for dean or president at other institutions, North always resisted, once saying her friendships with former President Courtney Smith and Dean of Women Susan Cobbs brought her “close enough.”

“Teaching Greek, Greek literature in translation, and mythology and religion was just delightful,” she added. “I would have been a fool to give that up.”

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