At age 16, Joanna Baker received national attention for her appointment at Simpson College (Indianola IA) to a tutorship in Greek, before she had received an academic degree. A precocious linguist in Greek, Latin and French, Baker served as Professor of Greek at Simpson for 30 years (1889-1919) and Professor of Greek and Latin at Lake Erie College for an additional seven (1919-1926).
Known in her youth as Josannah or Josie, Baker was the eldest of six children born to Orlando Harrison and Mary Catherine Ridley Baker. Her mother (1838-1890), a native of Tennessee, reports herself as a homemaker in the relevant US censuses, and has left little imprint on the record; one would like to know more. There is, however, a wealth of detail on her father. Orlando H. Baker (1830-1913) was the son of Indiana pioneers who attended several colleges before graduating from Asbury (now DePauw) University in 1857; in the next year he was ordained as minister in the Methodist Church. In 1868 Orlando Baker accepted a position as Professor of Latin and Greek at Simpson College, but after three years departed to head a new foundation, Algona College in Algona IA. The appointment ended abruptly in 1875; a plague of locusts had destroyed the local farming economy, which forced the college permanently to close. In the aftermath, Orlando Baker is found working as a pastor (1875-77), high school principal (1878-1879), editor of the Indianola Herald (1880-1886), and travelling reporter for the Chicago Inter Ocean in the US south and Mexico (1886-1892). In 1893 he entered the US Foreign Service, and held posts as consul in Copenhagen (1893-1894), Sydney (1900-1908), and finally North Borneo (1900-1913). He died in August 1913 on a ship at anchor in the harbor of Nagasaki, aged 83.
At what seems an impossibly early age—still as a toddler—Joanna was instructed by her parents in Greek and Latin. Baker’s biographical notice in an 1893 compendium offers a wealth of startling detail. “Her father for her amusement taught her, instead of Mother Goose melodies, the conjugation of the verb in Greek and Latin, which she learned merely from the rhythm. It was in her fourth year she was put to the systematic study of three languages, one lesson each day except Sunday. Mondays and Thursdays it was Greek, Tuesdays and Fridays, Latin, and Wednesdays and Saturdays, French. This system of instruction was continued with only the variation of oral exercises, and with scarcely ever an intermission, for several years… Before she was eight years old, she had thoroughly finished the primary books in Greek, Latin and French. She had read, besides, in Greek the first book of Xenophon's Anabasis and three books of Homer's Iliad. In Latin she had read Harkness' Reader entire, the first book of Caesar, and two books of Virgil's Aeneid. She took daily grammar lessons in Hadley's Greek grammar and Harkness' Latin, and all the grammatical references and notes annexed to the texts both of Latin and Greek. She had read in French a book of fables and stories, and learned Fasquelle's French course. Homer, Virgil and Fasquelle were recited with college classes. These were her studies in language before her eighth birthday.”
But there is more. “At the age of twelve years:”, says her 1893 biography, “besides the above studies, she had read other books of Homer and Virgil, Herodotus, [Xenophon’s] Memorabilia, Demosthenes de Corona, Sallust, Cicero de Senectute et [de] Amicitia, Orations against Catiline, with frequent exercise in Latin and Greek composition…Before her fourteenth year she had read several times over Oedipus Tyrannus in Greek, and made a complete lexicon of it, with critical notes on the text. At sixteen she had read most of the Greek and Latin of a college course and, having returned to Simpson College [in 1878], was appointed by President [Thomas S.] Berry tutor of Greek….At eighteen years of age she published an original literal translation of Plato's Apology, which received commendation from eminent Greek scholars.”
The Indianola Herald ran a feature on “Josie” Baker’s precocious training and college teaching appointment at Simpson, that many newspapers in the US and even Europe copied and transmitted—some more than a decade after she accepted the post. After two years of college teaching, in 1881 Joanna Baker matriculated in the undergraduate course at Iowa’s Cornell College, and received an A.B. degree in just one year. Upon graduation she returned to Indianola not to teach, but to work for the Herald newspaper, which her father now edited. When her father stepped down from that post in 1886, Joanna Baker entered DePauw University to earn an A.M. There for two years she studied and tutored Greek, and received instruction in German, French and music; she then joined the DePauw faculty for a year as instructor in Latin.
In 1889 Edmund M. Holmes, a Simpson College classicist and now its president, offered Joanna Baker the College’s chair of Greek—the position her father had held 20 years previous. She simultaneously took up the position of Secretary of the Faculty. Baker would remain in the Greek chair at Simpson for three decades, though not in continuous residence. Summer 1895 found Baker at Amherst College, at the “natural method” modern language school of Lambert Saveur (1826-1907). In summer 1896 Baker started post-graduate work at the University of Chicago with a concentration in archaeology, and after six further summers and a full academic year (1898-9) obtained the degree of A.M. in 1903. In 1905-6 she accompanied her father to Australia as he pursued his duties as US consul, and lectured to the public in Sydney.
More is known about Joanna Baker’s earliest years and formation than about the particulars of her career at Simpson College. The 1893 biography tells us “she organized all students of Greek in the college into a club called ‘Hoi Hellenikoi’ especially for the study of Greek home life and customs, mythology and civil polity; and to gain familiarity with choice passages from the best authors in the original Greek.” For a meeting of the Iowa State Hellenic Society at Simpson College in 1914, Baker and her colleague in Latin Mary Olive Hunting staged an ambitious English-language production of Plautus’ Captivi that highlighted the work of the students in their program (all of whom were women), who provided the translation and acted the roles in hand-dyed costumes that aimed toward historical accuracy (complete with manacles borrowed from the county jail); a Simpson music professor contributed an original score. A 1919 Simpson course catalogue shows Baker teaching in just one year (1919) a crushing range of offerings: elementary Greek, Herodotus, Homer’s Iliad, Plato’s Apology and Crito, Euripides' Alcestis, selections from the New Testament, and “the drama…if there is sufficient demand.” At one point she also offered an experimental course in ancient Greek conversation.
In 1919, at age 57, Joanna Baker moved to Painesville Ohio (30 miles east of Cleveland) to take up a professorship in Greek and Latin at Lake Erie College, which she held through 1926. The bulk of Baker’s scholarly activity (appearances at regional conferences, notes on pedagogy) is known from her years at Lake Erie. In 1930 the US Census shows her living in south-central Ohio with her younger sister Ada—who had taught modern languages at California’s Napa College—in the city of Delaware. Both sisters died in the year 1935; a search for obituaries or even death notices is so far unsuccessful.