Filler Another Titanic myth

Harvard's swimming test

BMJ 1998; 317 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.317.7163.938 (Published 03 October 1998) Cite this as: BMJ 1998;317:938
  1. Lars H Breimer, honorary senior lecturer
  1. Surrey

    As a freshman at Harvard University, one of the first things my wife had to do was to prove that she could swim. Had she failed this swimming test, then she would have had to take swimming lessons and repeat it, because you had to be able to swim to graduate from Harvard. The reason for this, she was told, was that Eleanor Elkins Widener had given Harvard its library in memory of her son who perished in the Titanicon this condition, because Mrs Widener believed that had her son been able to swim he would have survived.

    In fact, the story about Harry Elkins Widener's death inspiring the Harvard students' swimming requirement is widespread but apocryphal. The swimming test predated Harry Widener's attendance at Harvard. Also, this test, apparently, is now no longer administered, the more is the pity seeing that it was an eminently sensible and harmless tradition.

    The reality about the Wideners is more harrowing. Having helped his mother and her maid into one of the lifeboats, Harry Widener and his father remained on board and went down with the Titanic. A rare 1598 edition of Sir Francis Bacon's Essayeswas also lost. Apparently, Widener said: “Mother, I have just placed the little Bacon in my pocket; the little Bacon goes with me,” so Harry Widener had no illusions about his chances. Thus, Mrs Widener was a spectator at the death of the two men most dear to her.

    The Wideners were philanthropists. Mrs Widener's father in law gave in all $11m to charity as well as his entire art collection. Mrs Widener herself committed $2m to building the library as well as donating her son's collection of rare books. The avoidable deaths led to self evident improved safety at sea, such as adequate provision of lifeboats and around the clock radio watch. However, the students of Harvard benefited uniquely and, through the contribution of that great university, indirectly, so did all humanity. It is a pity about the swimming test, though.

    We welcome articles up to 600 words on topics such as A memorable patient, A paper that changed my practice, My most unfortunate mistake,or any other piece conveying instruction, pathos, or humour. If possible the article should be supplied on a disk. Permission is needed from the patient or a relative if an identifiable patient is referred to. We also welcome contributions for “Endpieces,” consisting of quotations of up to 80 words (but most are considerably shorter) from any source, ancient or modern, which have appealed to the reader.

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