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William Allan Neilson personal papers

Identifier: CA-MS-00120

Scope and Contents

The William Allan Neilson Papers consist of 21.75 linear feet of correspondence, newspaper clippings, manuscripts, press releases, lecture notes, texts of speeches, photographs, and miscellaneous papers which document Neilson's life and career. While these papers contain material dating from Neilson's years at Smith College (1917-1939), his official correspondence as president of the college is stored separately in the College Archives' holdings of records of the Office of the President.

The papers document Neilson's personal life with extensive family material. His letters to his brother and sisters are particularly valuable. Among other things these letters present Neilson's view of life at Bryn Mawr College under M. Carey Thomas, his strong opinions on world politics, his experiences tutoring Helen Keller at Radcliffe College, and his first impressions of Smith College. This series of letters is especially strong for the years between Neilson's arrival at Harvard University for graduate study in 1895 and his marriage in 1905. In addition to the Neilson family correspondence there is extensive correspondence between the Neilson and Muser families plus diaries and writings of Elisabeth Muser Neilson, her parents, and her sister. Much of the Muser family material is in German.

Other personal material such as photographs, correspondence, class notes, and student essays document Neilson's youth and education. His love of his native Scotland and his study of its language and literature are clearly in evidence in his University of Edinburgh essays.

Correspondence and miscellaneous papers, 1917-1946, document such day-to-day concerns as finances, family health, the running of the household, and travel arrangements.

Neilson's career as professor and scholar of English and Scottish literature is represented by class notes and correspondence with students and colleagues which date primarily from his years at Harvard and Radcliffe. Smith College material includes a few notes for courses Neilson taught in the English department but consists primarily of documentation of the events and celebrations of his presidency such as his appointment, inauguration, tenth and twentieth anniversaries, and retirement. Other material documents Neilson's affiliation with scholarly organizations such as the Modern Language Association, the Scottish Text Society, and the Shakespeare Association of America. There are also texts and notes for speeches on Shakespeare and Burns. Neilson's scholarly publications are represented by a number of articles, an unfinished manuscript for a book on allegory, and proofs for a 1942 edition of Shakespeare's plays and poems. Correspondence and news clippings document other writing and editorial projects in different stages of the work. Two such projects of particular interest are the 'five foot shelf' series of Harvard Classics, which Neilson edited with Charles W. Eliot, and the second edition of Webster's New International Dictionary, for which Neilson was editor-in-chief.

In addition to his work as professor, administrator, and scholar, Neilson was much in demand for committee work. As a respected educator and administrator, his advice and support was continually sought by educational institutions and organizations. Correspondence documents Neilson's work as a member of various committees for Harvard University, his suggestions on the planning of the campus and curriculum of Bennington College, and his advice and endorsements for the New School for Social Research and a variety of organizations promoting adult education such as the Affiliated Schools for Workers, the Eliot Foundation for Adult Education, and the Committee on University Extension in the Connecticut Valley.

Neilson was also well-known for his vigorous support of liberal causes of the day. His political activities are reflected in his involvement with a large number of organizations most of which worked for civil liberties, peace, aid to refugees, or improved foreign relations. This work is documented by correspondence with such organizations as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Foreign Policy Association, the American Society for Cultural Relations with Russia, the National Refugee Service, various League of Nations organizations, and the Commission to Study the Organization of Peace.

All of Neilson's interests and concerns are in evidence in his speeches and writings. Texts contained in the papers are a rich source for the study of life at Smith College, and trends in education and politics during Neilson's term as president of Smith (1917-1939). News clippings document the quite considerable attention paid to his views.

Neilson was a renowned speaker who seldom prepared a text, preferring to talk from cursory notes made shortly before the speech was to be delivered. Because of this process the texts contained in the papers are almost exclusively transcriptions. Some of them were edited for publication, others remain more or less as they were delivered. The papers also contain some of Neilson's handwritten notes for speeches.

Correspondence, citations, and news clippings document Neilson's many awards and honors and a group of biographical articles gives an overview of Neilson's life and work. The papers also contain notes, typescripts, and correspondence for Margaret Farrand Thorp's 1956 biography Nelson of Smith.

Dates of Materials

  • 1850-1982


Language of Materials

English and German

Conditions Governing Access

The William Allan Neilson Papers are open for research according to the regulations of the Smith College Archives without any additional restrictions.

Conditions Governing Use

Smith College retains copyright of materials created as part of its business operations; however, copyright in other items in this collection may be held by their respective creators. For reproductions of materials that are governed by fair use as defined under U. S. Copyright Law, no permission to cite or publish is required. For instances which may regard materials in the collection not created by Smith College, researchers are responsible for determining who may hold materials' copyrights and obtaining approval from them. Researchers do not need anything further from Smith College Special Collections to move forward with their use.

Biographical / Historical

William Allan Neilson served as president of Smith College from 1917 to 1939.

Born in Doune, Perthshire, Scotland, March 28
Attended Montrose Academy
Studied at the University of Edinburgh, received M.A.
Immigrated with family to Canada
Resident English Master, Upper Canada College, Toronto
Graduate work in English, Harvard University, M.A. (1897), Ph.D. (1898)
Associate Professor of English Literature, Bryn Mawr College
Instructor of English, Harvard University
Professor of English, Columbia University
Became American citizen
Professor of English, Harvard University
Married Elisabeth Muser in Offenburg, Germany, June 25
Exchange Professor, University of Paris
President of Smith College
Trustee, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Education
Served intermittently on the College Entrance Examination Board
Initiated Special Honors program at Smith College
President, Modern Language Association
Editorial Board of G.C. Merriam and Company
Started Junior Year Abroad program at Smith College
Advisory Council, the Open Road, Inc.
Board of Directors, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
Board of Directors, National Refugee Service
Chair, Executive Committee, Commission to Study the Organization of Peace
Presided over the International Student Service Summer Student Leadership Institute at Campobello, New Brunswick
Board of Overseers, Harvard University
Died in Northampton, Massachusetts, February 13

Selected Bibliography

The Origins and Sources of the Court of Love
The Essentials of Poetry
The Facts about Shakespeare
Robert Burns: How to Know Him

Editorial Projects

Harvard Classics, "Five Foot Shelf"
Cambridge Shakespeare
1906, revised 1942
Webster's New International Dictionary, 2nd Edition


22.229 linear feet (47 containers)


The William Allan Neilson personal papers include extensive family material. His letters to his brother and sisters are particularly valuable. Other letters present Neilson's view of life at Bryn Mawr College under M. Carey Thomas, his experiences tutoring Helen Keller at Radcliffe College, and his first impressions of Smith College. The collection also reflects his strong interest in liberal politics. Also included are writings of Elisabeth Muser Neilson and the Muser, Neilson and Allan family papers. Material relating to Margaret Farrard Thorp's 1956 biography, Neilson of Smith is included in the collection. Other materials includes correspondence, manuscripts, press releases, lecture notes, texts of speeches, and photographs.


This collection is organized into six series:

  1. I. Biographical Material
  2. II. Photographs and Portraits
  3. III. Academic Life
  4. IV. Other Activities
  5. V. Speeches
  6. VI. Writings

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Most of the material which makes up the William Allan Neilson Personal Papers was located and gathered between 1951 and 1956 by Margaret Farrand Thorp when she was researching and writing her 1956 biography Neilson of Smith. Reminiscences and materials were solicited from family, friends, colleagues, and students. Other materials were discovered in various storerooms on campus. There is little specific information about when or how but most of this material eventually found its way to the College Archives.

Additional Formats

Images from this collection are also available online as part of the Five College Archives Digital Access Project.

Related Material

His official correspondence as president of Smith College is stored separately in the College Archives' holdings of records of the Office of the President.


Selected Bibliography:
Editorial Projects:
For a more complete biographical sketch see the Dictionary of American Biography Supplement 1946-1950.
  • The Origins and Sources of the Court of Love (1899)
  • The Essentials of Poetry (1912)
  • The Facts about Shakespeare (1913)
  • Robert Burns: How to Know Him (1917)
  • Harvard Classics "Five Foot Shelf" (1909-1910)
  • Cambridge Shakespeare (1906, revised 1942)
  • Webster's New International Dictionary, 2nd Ed. (1934)

Processing Information

Please note that prior to 2018, folder inventories were not always updated when new material was added to the collection. As a result, folder inventories may not be complete and folder numbers may be incorrect.

William Allan Neilson personal papers
Legacy Finding Aid (Updated)
Maida Goodwin, Ellice Amanna
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Encoding funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Revision Statements

  • 07/26/2017: This resource was modified by the ArchivesSpace Preprocessor developed by the Harvard Library (
  • 2005-09-23: manosca120 converted from EAD 1.0 to 2002 by v1to02-5c.xsl (sy2003-10-15).
  • 09/21/2017: Links to selected digitized resources were added to the finding aid
  • 11/12/18: Updated finding aid

Repository Details

Part of the Smith College Archives Repository

Neilson Library
7 Neilson Drive
Northampton MA 01063