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Office of President William Allan Neilson Files

Identifier: CA-MS-00013

Scope and Contents

The Office of President William Allan Neilson files document his official duties as president of Smith College. The collection includes correspondence, subject files, and organization files. Neilson's collaboration with trustees is demonstrated in the correspondence files. His involvement in the development of the curriculum, alumnae relations, construction of buildings, and the basic running of the college is highlighted in the subject files. Of particular interest in the organization files is information on donors to Smith College.

Dates of Materials

  • 1900-1948


Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open for research use without restriction beyond the standard terms and conditions of Smith College Special Collections.

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 Smithh College for 22 years. Born March 28, 1869, in Doune, Pertshire Scotland, he attended Edinburgh University where he studied philosophy, graduating with honors in 1891. In order to join his brother who emigrated to Canada, Neilson crossed the Atlantic and began teaching in Upper Canada College in Toronto which was a boarding school for young boys.

Deciding that he would prefer to be a scholar than a school master, Neilson went on to Harvard Graduate School in Cambridge, MA where he received his Ph.D. in English in 1898. Upon receiving his Ph.D., Neilson accepted a position as an Associate in English Literature at Bryn Mawr College in Bryn Mawr, PA. Neilson taught at many other fine institutions before settling into the work of an administrator. Harvard, Radcliffe, the Sorbonne, Columbia, Barnard, and the University of California all made use of Neilson's talents at one time or another.

It was during his years as a professor that Neilson distinguished himself as the sort of scholar that an academic institution would wish to guide it. Before coming to Smith, Neilson made a name for himself as a professor devoted to his students' learning. He was the only instructor of Helen Keller's who learned the manual sign language she used for communication. He was also an accomplished writer and editor. Among his writings were Essentials of Poetry (1912)and The Facts about Shakespeare (1913). He also was the editor of Milton's Minor Poems (1899) and Shakespeare's Complete Works (1906).

In 1917, Neilson was offered the Presidency of Smith College. He accepted on the conditions that he would not be obligated to raise money, and that a president's house would be built, conditions the trustees complied with.

Neilson's quick wit that endeared him to student, staff, faculty, and alumnae. At Neilson's final commencement in 1939 Cynthia Walsh recalled one particular instance:

The seniors will especially recall that on May Day when they went to serenade him, his new collie puppy began to bark, not realizing what sweet voices were vying with the birds so early in the morning. When the president stepped out he said, "My dog thinks you're sheep," and the volleys of laughter which greeted this remark quite drowned out the rest: "-but I think you're lambs!"

Neilson's accomplishments included purchasing and building new residences so that all Smith students would live on campus. He was responsible for the building of the Great Quadrangle, purchasing Chapin House, Talbot House, Sessions House, and many others. During Neilson's 22-year term as president, the campus also saw the additions of Sage Music Hall, Scott Gymnasium, Tryon Art Gallery, the Alumnae House, the Infirmary, and the President's house.

Neilson also established the Junior Year in France, Junior Year in Italy, and the Junior Year in Spain Programs. Special Honors, the Smith College Day School, and the School for Social Work were additions that Neilson made to the college.

Neilson continued writing and editing while looking after the well being of 2,000 students. In 1920 he wrote History of English Literature and in 1922 he edited Roads to Knowledge. He also was the editor-in-chief of Webster's New International Dictionary, 2nd edition, 1934.


26.021 linear feet (57 containers)

Language of Materials



William Allan Neilson was the third President of Smith College. The Office of President William Allan Neilson files contain official records of the Office of the President including, correspondence, subject files, organization files, and confidential files.


This collection is organized into three series:

  1. I. Correspondence
  2. II. Organization
  3. III. Subjects

Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements

As a preservation measure, researchers must use digital copies of audiovisual materials in this collection. Please consult with Special Collections staff or email to request the creation of and access to digital copies.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Source unknown

Processing Information

Processed by Katie Motta and Susan Ott.

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.

Finding aid to Office of the President William Allan Neilson files
Legacy Finding Aid (Updated)
Katie Motta and Susan Ott; 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: manosca13 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 finding aid
  • 11/12/18 : Added boxes, locations, barcodes; updated finding aid

Repository Details

Part of the Smith College Archives Repository

Neilson Library
7 Neilson Drive
Northampton MA 01063