Yale student, professor George Hersey dies at 80

Some students complain at graduation about leaving Yale’s halls for the outside world, but during his half-century at the University, George Hersey GRD ’54 found a solution to this problem: He never left.

Hersey, who died Oct. 23 at the age of 80, spent over half his life as a member of the Yale community — first as student, then professor and finally as director of graduate studies for the History of Art Department. An authority on a wide variety of art and architectural history, Hersey was particularly renowned for his knowledge of Italian Renaissance architecture and sculpture, colleagues said.

During the 47 years between 1951 and 1998, Hersey spent only five years away from the Yale campus, serving as a professor at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., from 1954 to 1959.

It was while living in Lewisburg that Hersey first developed a genuine passion for architectural history, his wife Jane Hersey said.

“He first came through art history partly by way of scene design at the Yale Drama School, where he worked under Donald Oenslager — a scene designer in the ’30s and ’40s — who really encouraged historical research on some of the designs,” Jane Hersey said. “That was one influence, certainly … but another important one was living in Lewisburg. The town was a kind of well-preserved architectural museum.”

Hersey’s first foray into architectural discovery began with the realization that a Lewisburg building had been designed by one of the architects of the U.S. Capitol, Jane Hersey said.

Intrigued by the building’s history, Hersey sought to discover what its original design had been before haphazard modifications were made to it over the years, she said. And as he became more and more engrossed in his work, Hersey felt compelled to return to Yale to get a doctorate in art history.

Five years later, before even completing his dissertation, Hersey began teaching Yale students. One of those students, David Nolta GRD ’89, who lived with Hersey on and off for 20 years, remembers his professor and adviser as a “soft-spoken genius.”

“He wasn’t epic, like Vincent Scully,” Nolta said. “But he had a great, great mind.”

Despite his reputation as soft-spoken, Hersey found himself at the center of one of the great Ivy League scandals of the 1990s.

From the 1940s to the 1960s, thousands of students at elite colleges were photographed nude, with pins sticking out of their spines. These “posture photos” were supposedly taken to determine which students were in need of remedial posture classes.

But when stories of the photos began to circulate during the 1990s, Hersey wrote a letter to The New York Times entitled “A Secret Lies Hidden in Vassar and Yale Nude ‘Posture Photos.’ ” Hersey was the first scholar to discover that the photos were in fact used for another purpose — and to reveal the findings to the public.

“They had nothing to do with posture … that is only what we were told,” Hersey wrote in his 1992 letter regarding the photos. “I have … learned that the pictures were made for anthropological research.”

Hersey went on to write that the pictures had been taken and used for a pseudo-science relating body type to personality, intelligence and moral worth — a discipline made popular by E.A. Hooton of Harvard University and W.H. Sheldon of Yale in the middle of the 20th century. Hersey’s assertions were verified by New York Times reporter Ron Rosenbaum during the scandal.

Edward Cooke Jr., the Charles F. Montgomery Professor of American Decorative Arts at Yale, said Hersey was able to bring long-forgotten ideas into public light.

“He had an ability to bridge the past and the present,” Cooke said.

In his later years, Hersey used that bridge to connect the modern to the ancient, focusing his studies on the possibilities opened up to the artistic world by computer technology.

In 1992, Hersey co-wrote a book on 16th-century architect Andrea Palladio in which he developed computer programs to research the geometry underlying Palladian architecture, Hersey’s son James said.

According to his friends, Hersey’s wide range of interests was a fundamental part of his character.

“He was the perfect model because of the diversity of his subjects,” Nolta said. “He could be a scholar of anything you name, and he was interested in everything.”

Comments

  • Oriana

    It was at the beginning of 2001 when I decided to start corresponding with experts in the field of art history. I was 19 then, a freshman in some European country, and I needed professional advice to develop my knowledge and fill in the gaps. I found Professor Hersey's name on the Yale University website and I simply wrote to him. I had no illusions at the time that a prestigious art historian from a top university would accept to guide me in the field. I probably expected him to ignore my email, as many others from the European continent had. But Professor Hersey was different. He unreservedly accepted to be my long-distance tutor. "I am touched and flattered.", he replied. Imagine how touched I was.
    We had exchanged dozens of emails, discussing art, the Renaissance in particular, Michelangelo. His expertise and advice were an invaluable asset to my professional development. At the end of my freshman year, I had a research paper long as a masters dissertation, ready. To me, it was a self-assessment, a starting point. I sent it to him and I humbly waited for his opinion. It was the first time in my life when I heard a professor telling a student "I have learned much from you." It was overwhelming. If you would only had known, dear Professor, how much I have learned from you. You were a truly amazing person. I thank you most heartily.
    I was deeply distressed to find out that in 2007, the long-distance became longest-distance. I wish people like him were eternal. I am sure they are. My heart goes with Professor Hersey's family and friends.

    Oriana
    University College London