Answered By: Deborah Kelley-Milburn
Last Updated: Jul 15, 2015     Views: 9448

Among the many myths relating to Harry Elkins Widener, this is the most prevalent.  A review of records in the Harvard Archives indicates that there have been swimming requirements at various times in Harvard history, but none were related in any way to Mr. Widener or the gift of the library to Harvard by his mother Eleanor Elkins Widener Rice.  In his 1980 publication "a memorial to my dear son," Harvard historian William Bentinck-Smith wrote, "There is absolutely no evidence in the President's papers, or the faculty's to indicate that Mrs. Rice was, as a result of the Titanic disaster, in any way responsible for the compulsory swimming test." 

A Harvard College swimming requirement was instituted in the early 1880s for crew team members wishing to use boats on the Charles River.  In 1919, Harvard instituted compulsory physical training, including swimming instruction, for all freshmen; however, the President's report of 1919-1920 describing the new regulations does not mention a graduation swim requirement.  A swimming requirement is described in the 1969-1970 Harvard University Catalogue (p. 63), but is no longer mentioned by the publication of the 1974-1975 Catalogue.  Currently, there is no swimming requirement at Harvard.

A 2002 article in The Harvard Library Bulletin by Denison Beach called "Everybody's Wild about Harry," (n.s. v. 13, #1, pp3-4) describes additional folklore surrounding Harry Elkins Widener and the library. 

For more information, please contact the Harvard University Archives.

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