North American Scholar

SWAIN, Joseph Ward

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  • Date of Birth (YYYY-MM-DD): 1891-12-16
  • Born City: Yankton
  • Born State/Country: SD
  • Parents: Henry Huntington & Mira Olmsted S.
  • Date of Death (YYYY-MM-DD): 1971-09-04
  • Death City: Urbana
  • Death State/Country: IL
  • Married: Margaret Hatfield, 15 Aug. 1921.
  • Education:

    Study at Beloit (WI) Coll., 1908-10; A.B. Columbia, 1912; Ph.D., 1916; A.M. Harvard, 1913; study in Paris, 1913-5.

  • Professional Experience:

    Instr. mod. langs. Wabash Coll., 1916-7; instr. hist. U. Montana, 1917-8; instr. to prof. hist. U. Illinois, 1919-60; chair hist. dept., 1956-60; prof. hist. Columbia, summ. 1945; res. sch. Huntington Lib., 1962-3.

  • Dissertation:

    "The Hellenic Origins of Christian Asceticism" (Columbia, 1916); printed (New York, 1916).

  • Publications:

    Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (trans.) (London & New York, 1915; repr. New York, 1961); "What is History?," JPh 20 (1923) 281-349; "History and the Science of Society," in Essays in Intellectual History (New York, 1929) 305-25; Beginning the Twentieth Century: A History of the Generation that Made the War (New York, 1933; rev. ed. 1940); "Edward Gibbon and the Decline of Rome," SAQ 39 (1940) 77-93; "The History of the Four Monarchies: Opposition History under the Roman Empire," CP 35 (1940) 1-21; "Gamaliel's Speech and Caligula's Statue," HTR 37 (1944) 341-9; "Antiochus Epiphanes and Egypt," CP 39 (1944) 73-94; The Ancient World, 2 vols. (New York, 1950), later published in abbreviated form as The Peoples of the Ancient World, with W.H. Armstrong (New York, 1959); The Harper History of Civilization (New York, 1958); Edward Gibbon the Historian (New York, 1966).

  • Notes:

    Although born in South Dakota, Swain grew up in Dillon, MT, where his father was a professor of economics and president of the State Normal College. Following his graduation from Columbia and an unhappy year at Harvard, he went to Paris, where he met Émile Durkheim and was asked to translate Formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse into English. World War I disrupted his studies, and his French dissertation, "Hebrew and Early Christian Asceticism," was never formally accepted. After a year at Columbia, however, he completed an American doctorate with work on a closely related topic. Tall, pale, and in his later years extremely thin, Swain was believed by some of his graduate students to have been exposed to poison gas in combat. In fact, he spent a year with the army in Camp Lewis, WA (1918-9), and was then hired by the University of Illinois.Swain spent his early years at Illinois trying to make sense of recent European history, but eventually turned his attention back to the ancient world. In 1935 he spent a semester abroad, visiting archaeological sites and obtaining a personal interview with the German Kaiser, who was by then in exile at Doom. Most of the rest of his career was devoted to teaching and writing textbooks. Awkward in one-on-one situations, he directed only six dissertations; behind the podium, on the other hand, he was a witty, iconoclastic, and highly effective lecturer.

  • Sources:

    News-Gazette (Champaign, IL) (5 Sept. 1971); U. of Illinois Archives; WhAm 5:707.

  • Author: S. Douglas Olson