North American Scholar

HARRISON, Gessner

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  • Date of Birth (YYYY-MM-DD): 1807-06-26
  • Born City: Harrisonburg
  • Born State/Country: VA
  • Parents: Peachy & Mary Stuart H.
  • Date of Death (YYYY-MM-DD): 1862-04-07
  • Death City: Nelson Co
  • Death State/Country: VA
  • Married: Eliza Lewis Carter Tucker, Dec. 1830.
  • Education:

    M.D. U. Virginia, 1828.

  • Professional Experience:

    Prof. anc. langs., U. Virginia, 1828-56; prof. Lat., 1856-59; founded & taught at boy's school in Nelson Co., VA, 1859-62.

  • Publications:

    The Geography of Ancient Italy and Southern Greece (Charlottesville, 1834); Lectures on the Geography of Ancient Greece (Charlottesville, 1834); Exposition of Some Doctrines of Latin Grammar (Charlottesville, 1839); The Rise, Progress and Present Structure of the English Language (London, 1848); Exposition of Some Laws of the Latin Grammar (New York, 1852); Table of Latin Prepositions (n.p., n.d.); “The University of Virginia,” Duyckinck's Universal Cyclopedia (New York, 1856), 2:742-9.

  • Notes:

    One of the first students to enter the new University of Virginia, Gessner Harrison had just graduated with a medical degree, when his teacher, George Long, resigned to help found University College, London, naming Harrison as his successor. Harrison taught all the Greek and Latin at the University for the next 28 years, until at his instigation in 1856 the chair was divided into two. He chose the Latin chair, as the more profitable, while the Greek chair was given to the young Basil Gildersleeve. As the classics professor at the leading university of the South, Harrison exercised considerable influence throughout the region, and was, in Gildersleeve's words, “the American pioneer in the application of the methods of comparative grammar to the classical languages” (AJP 35 [1914] 497). Owing to the lack of textbooks, Harrison himself prepared pamphlets on geography and history, as well as grammar, for the instruction of his students. His grammar was based on the principles of Franz Bopp, while his book on Greek prepositions is the only American book cited, and positively, by Böckh in his Encyklopädie und Methodologie. He also served as chairman of the faculty (the chief administrative officer of the university) for seven years. He was already worn out from his enormous efforts when Gildersleeve arrived, and within three years the young German-trained scholar had outstripped his weary colleague in energy and application. He resigned in 1859 because he could not provide sufficiently for his growing family and opened a school in Albemarle Co., then moved it to Nelson Co. While nursing one of his sons afflicted with camp fever, Harrison himself acquired the disease and died shortly afterwards.

  • Sources:

    Walter A. Montgomery, DAB 8:340-1; WhAmHS 306.

  • Author: Ward W. Briggs, Jr.