Jeannette Mirsky: In the Words of an Archivist

“In drawing on the letters and unpublished personal narratives, I have taken the liberty of letting the story run along without denoting ellipses; the pages filled with dots looked unseemly… I have utilized whatever books and articles would carry the story ahead fully and honestly and so obviated the repetitiousness of an archivist’s bibliography.”

-Jeannette Mirsky, from the Preface of Sir Aurel Stein: Archaeological Explorer


Last month I referred to Barnard alumna, author, and world traveler, Jeannette Mirsky, as “the coolest person I never heard of until last week.” Considering that her personal papers, recently acquired by the Barnard College Archives, remained unprocessed until this week, it is not surprising I had not encountered Mirsky previously. Last week I completed processing Jeannette Mirsky’s personal papers and reading her book, To the Arctic! Having spent so much time with her collection, and because there is so little information online about her, I found it fitting to pay her a brief tribute by sharing a few words about Mirsky and her work.

Jeannette Mirsky was born in New Jersey in 1903, and raised in New York City where she went on to earn her A.B. from Barnard College in 1924. From 1935-1938 Mirsky did graduate work at Columbia University, where she studied under Franz Boas and Margaret Mead. Mirsky’s academic records from this time and a notebook from a 1935 Anthropology course entitled “Social Organization,” are included among her papers.

As Mirsky embarked on her graduate studies, her inaugural book, To the North! was published. This time period is documented by extensive correspondence with publishers, manuscript drafts, and a collection of maps, illustrations, and photographs to be considered for inclusion in the publication. To the North! recounts the history of Arctic exploration, utilizing primary source materials to detail Arctic journeys in the words of the explorers themselves. To the North! begins: “Not so long ago there was a custom among sailors that accorded to all those who had sailed round Cape Horn the right to put one foot on the table after dinner, while those who had crossed the Arctic Circle could put both feet on the table. Here will be found the stories of those men who have both feet on the table, told whenever possible in their own words.”

Despite Mirksy’s extensive research and utilization of primary source documents, To the North! was controversial for largely discrediting Frederick Cook’s claims of discovering the North Pole. Mirsky wrote, “Cook was an extraordinary figure. It is impossible to dismiss him simply by calling him a liar. Rather it may be said that he was a great teller of stories, a fiction-writer who on a certain amount of fact built a vivid and absorbing yarn. For a man of his ability and experience he harbored too puissant an imagination…The story told in Cook’s My Attainment of the Pole is exciting and well written, but it nevertheless appears to be mainly fiction.”


Jeannette Mirsky outside a bar

To the North! subsequently went out of print for a number of years due to a lawsuit by Cook, but was re-released in 1946 under the title, To the Arctic: The Story of Northern Exploration from the Earliest Times to the Present. In addition to English, the book has been published in German, Spanish, and French. Although the book is largely remembered for the controversy ignited by Mirsky’s assertion that it was Robert Peary, and not Frederick Cook who first reached the North Pole; the vast majority of To the North! is interested in what happened prior to the so-called attainment of the Pole. Near the end of the book, after devoting a chapter to the North Pole claims, Mirksy concedes: “It has been many years now since the Pole was reached, and viewing Peary’s exploit from such a vantage-point, it would seem fair to say that if any man were to reach the Pole, that man would be Peary…But like all deeds whose import is self-contained, it seems a strange goal on which to have lavished so much energy and planning and money. Like so many grand gestures, when seen in retrospect, it does not seem to matter greatly.”

 Mirsky expressed a lifelong interest in travel and exploration. Her personal papers are full of her research on explorers, letters and correspondence from around the world, and boxes of postcards and photographs documenting these pursuits. Her years of research culminated in a number of publications, which includes The Westward Crossings, The World of Eli Whitney, Elisha Kent Kane and the Seafaring Frontier, The Great Chinese Travelers: An Anthology, Houses of God, and Sir Aurel Stein: Archaeological Explorer.

Prior to Barnard’s acquisition of Mirsky’s personal papers, the extent of our knowledge ended with her non-fiction and anthropological writings. It is my hope that with the availability of the Jeannette Mirsky collection that interest is sparked and a biographer of Jeannette Mirsky will emerge to tell her story, in her own words, just as she spent her life doing for others.

Written by: Heather Lember, Barnard College Archives Graduate Assistant


A Brief Overview of the Barnard Course Catalogues

When Barnard College opened on October 7, 1889, the College offered six courses of study: Greek Language and Literature, Latin Language and Literature, English Language and Literature, Mathematics, and Botany. Parts of the syllabi of these subjects were the “Seventh Book of Herodotus,” “Higher English Grammar,” or “Latin Prose Composition.” Today, the curriculum for each major is not so standardized, giving the Barnard student more room to pursue their specific interests. This, and the fact that there are more classes offered now than there were 30 years ago, makes the process of choosing classes a long one. With the end of the semester approaching it is again that time of year to craft our new schedules. Out of curiosity, I delved into some of the old Barnard Course Catalogs in the Barnard Archives to create an overview of the highlights.

By the 1909-10 school year, the curriculum had expanded considerably since the College first opened. Barnard now offered classes in physiography (considered synonymous with geography by the college examination board) and music. The pre-requisite for the music appreciation class was having a “general knowledge of the lives and environment of at least ten composers.” Classes expanded even more by the 1925-26 Announcement, but still left something to be desired. The history department offered sixteen classes about European (French and English mostly), Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and American pasts. Only one class, “Nationalism and Imperialism in the Near East,” strayed from the study of ancient or Western worlds. Departments continued to expand and by the 1934-35 school year the Anthropology Department was well-established, showcasing two classes that caught my eye in the announcement: “Primitive Social Life” and “Problems in Anthropology.” The first class would make modern anthropologists cringe and the second would make them nod their heads knowingly. Ah, the still unresolved problems in anthropology that make me question my major every day. At the same time the physical education department offered this class: “Sports, games, rhythmic fundamentals, dancing, individual gymnastics, and other activities.” The 1934-35 Announcement states that the activities vary according to a student’s “health grade [and/or] her defects.” The Announcement of 1944-45 does not present many more classes, however, the class “Problems of Race,” seems to promise to shake things up. Part of the course description outline says: “The nation and the melting-pot. Composition and distribution of world populations and their significance….The basis of prejudice.” Professor Gladys Reichard taught the class; in fact she taught all the anthropology classes at that point, making the department somewhat of a one-woman show. Also noteworthy is the music class “Harpsichord Instruction.” 

We continue our look through the Barnard course catalogs with 1954-55. Now, the anthropology department no longer offers “Primitive Social Life,” instead of offering one class that lumps together “Oriental Art,” the Art History Department taught several covering “Persia, India, and Indonesia,” China, and Japan. A hygiene class entitled “Modern Living” is mandatory for all Freshmen and transfers. Transfers have the opportunity to take an exemption test; however, I wonder how one would be tested in hygiene and “Modern Living.” In the 1970s, the Anthropology Department lost its “primitive man” terminology, offering classes on “Peoples of the Pacific” or “Peoples of Europe” instead. In 1974-75, the history department offered “Afro-American History” and “Black Urban America.” Other intriguing courses that year included the particularly melancholy class “The Concept of Death” and “Electronic Music: Its Evolution and Techniques.” I hope no student overlooked the P.E. department’s offering of beginning and intermediate classes in “European Folk Dance” that year. The classes offered in the 1984-85 Announcement show the great range of studies present at Barnard: “History of Mental Illness and its Treatment,” “The Invisible Woman in Literature: The Lesbian Literary Tradition,” “Religious Ethics: War and Peace in Jewish and Christian Thought,” and even “The Art of Medieval Manuscript Illumination.” We now jump to the 1994-95 Catalog that offers classes in the Pan-Africa Studies Program, now Africana Studies. In the category of “classes with appealing titles” are the first-year seminar “The Teratological Text: Representations of the Other as Monster” and the history class “Telling about the South: Southerners and Southerness in History and Literature.” As far as I know “southerness” is not really a word, but a town in Scotland, however it does add a wonderful whimsy to the title. Finally, we come to the last course catalog of our survey: 2004-05. It offers such varied (but possibly not very useful) courses such as “Mafia Movies: The Godfather to The Sopranos,” “Chivalric Narratives in Popular Oral Tradition: Sicilian Puppet Theater and the Tuscan-Emilian Maggio,” and “What is Philosophy, Anyway?” I must admit that I have not mentioned any math courses because I would not know an engaging math course from a dull one. For example, the class “Differential Geometry” sounds quite benign to me, but I understand little from the description: “Local and global differential geometry of submanifolds of Euclidian 3-space. Frenet formulae for curves. Various types of curvature for curves and surfaces and their relations.” 

One can really get a feeling for the evolution of Barnard by looking through the course catalogs. The offered majors have grown from botany, Greek, and Latin to Jewish Studies, Race & Ethnic Studies, Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies, Physics & Astronomy, Neuroscience & Behavior and that is just to name a few.


-Alice Griffin, BC ’15

Margaret Mead at Barnard

Margaret Mead ’23 sitting on roof of Barnard Hall, circa 1920s. Courtesy of the Barnard College Archives.

In any anthropology class you take at Barnard, the professor will take a few minutes out of the first lecture to tell you that Margaret Mead, the brilliant scholar responsible for introducing anthropology into the public conscience, was once a student at Barnard.  In 1920, a “frumpy” Mead transferred to Barnard from DePauw University as a sophomore.

Mead had trouble fitting in at DePauw.  She was socially ostracized and turned down by many sororities during the rush process because she didn’t dress “in fashion.”  At Barnard, however, she found “and in some measure created–the kind of student life that matched [her] dreams….friendships were founded that endured a lifetime of change.”  By the end of her time here, she knew what she could do in life.

At the time that Mead attended, Barnard only had one dorm and so overflow students lived in Barnard owned apartments near campus, much as upperclassmen do today.  Here, in a Claremont Apartment, Mead began to develop the close circle of friends nicknamed the Ash Can Cats.  The moniker was given them by drama teacher and Barnard legend Minor Latham, whose comprehensive drama survey they all took together.  Noted poet Leonie Adams was, along with Mead, the leader of the group.  Mead described the Ash Can Cats as “unusual” and “half Jewish, half Gentile,” a contradiction which Mead thought sparked debate among the girls.  They thought of themselves as radicals but spent many nights engaged in studies and academic debate rather than partying.  It was clear that they meant “radical” in an intellectual sense.  Mead’s Ash Can Cats belonged to “a generation of young women who felt extraordinarily free.”

Originally an English major, it was at Barnard that Mead took her first anthropology class taught by the pioneering anthropologist Franz Boas.  She met Ruth Benedict, who was then serving as Boas’  TA and who encouraged Mead to major in Anthropology, telling her that philosophy could wait but that the field of anthropology was moving now.  Benedict belonged to the culture and personality school of anthropology and was later recognized as one of the other key female anthropologists of the 20th century.  Mead formed a strong relationship with Benedict and Boas, and her interest in anthropology directly affected the Ash Can Cats outside of discussion–she drew up a kinship chart for the group, similar to ones used by field anthropologists at the time, to organize her friends.  At the top were the parents, Deborah Kaplan, Leonie Adams, and Mead and then the children, who included Viola Corrigan and were noted for their “whimsical humor.”  The chart continued and all the way through to a “great grandchild” that the Ash Can Cats “adopted” during their last years at college.

Three “Ash Can Cats” seated on a bench holding balloons. From left to right: Léonie Adams ’22, Margaret Mead ’23, and Eleanor Pelham Kortheuer ’24, the Jungle, circa, 1921. Courtesy of the Barnard College Archives.

In her years post Barnard, Mead made some significant breaks from the teachings of her anthropology mentors, rejecting Boas’ practice of salvage anthropology and moving into a more public sphere of anthropological study.  She always remained, however, unchanging in her gratefulness to Barnard for her undergraduate years, still the girl who wrote, a few weeks into her residence “I love, love, love it here.”