Is it true that Harvard students must pass a swimming test because of Harry Elkins Widener's death aboard the Titanic?

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 "Everyone's Wild About Harry," (n.s. v. 13, #1, pp. 3-4) describes additional folklore surrounding Harry Elkins Widener and the library. 

For more information, please contact the Harvard University Archives.

Service Alert:
  • Ask a Librarian, including chat and email, will be suspended from 5:00 pm on Thursday, December 22, through Monday, January 2, for the holiday break. Any questions received during this period will be answered beginning Tuesday, January 2, 2024.
  • If If you're experiencing an ongoing technical issue when you attempt to access library materials with your HarvardKey during these times, please report it to Library Technology Services.



Monday-Thursday 9am-9pm

Friday-Saturday 9am-5pm

Sunday 12noon-7pm

Chat is intended for brief inquiries from the Harvard community.


Talk to a librarian for advice on defining your topic, developing your research strategy, and locating and using sources. Make an appointment now.

These services are intended primarily for Harvard University faculty, staff and students. If you are not affiliated with Harvard, please use these services only to request information about the Library and its collections.