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reed magazine logoAutumn 2009

Tales of the Tower

By Jim Kahan ’64

The senior thesis has been a graduation requirement at Reed since the very beginning; the collection from 1915 through the present numbers about 14,325 (the exact figure depending on whether Gary Snyder’s 1951 thesis has been stolen again).

doyle owl

The rules regarding formatting, deadlines, penalties for late submission, and the composition of orals committees were informal in the first years; president Dexter M. Keezer had them codified in 1937. Theses must be submitted to the registrar on a given Friday—typically the last Friday of classes. Priscilla Watson Laws ’61 and Jerry Millstein ’61 organized the first annual thesis parade from the library to the registrar’s office, to the accompaniment of music and general merriment. One story has it that the parade was organized right before the noon deadline so that stragglers could join at the end of the line and have their theses accepted in time for graduation. However, registrar Ellen Knowlton Johnson ’39 was known to unplug the office clock at 11:55 a.m. and accept theses “on time” until she went home late that afternoon. The bonfire of thesis notes is a relatively recent phenomenon; it was predated by a formal cremation ceremony of notes in 1931. Le plus ça change…

While all 14,325 thesis tales are interesting, some are especially noteworthy. The shortest thesis (Kenneth C. Tomlinson on Losses in the Electro-Analysis of Copper Sulphate Solutions in 1915 for the chemistry department) runs four pages, while the longest (Carl L. Washburn on “A Sometimes Great Nation” in 1966 in political science) runs 506. Here are some other highlights.

The shape of things to come. Edna Metcalf ’15 wrote An Examination of Posture of the Reed College Women for the physical education department. She constructed a measuring box and assessed the posture of all 127 women then attending Reed. Edna notes that many women did not stand straight, and that all of these women leaned towards the arm they used to carry textbooks. (She also notes that 81.1% of the women were flat-chested.)

Critically creative. Creative theses are rare. One of the first was The Horae of Mary Ethel Barnard (1932), for the English department. Mary’s orals committee was chaired by Lloyd J. Reynolds, and included faculty giants Reginald F. Arragon, Barry Cerf, V L O. Chittick, Norman F. Coleman, and Benjamin M. Woodbridge. Mary included in her thesis a confessional statement, “I should have written a critical thesis. For the good of my soul, I should have written it, but I swear that I could not.” Later, in a short volume published in 1999, it is clear that she more than held her own in that august company, writing that in her orals she “got as many laughs out of them as I could.”

In good time. Don Green ’54 took 50 years to complete his economics thesis, receiving his diploma in 2004 for “Principal Agent Theory: Case Study of the Presidio Trust.” He had completed a perfectly adequate thesis in 1954, but the ever-practical Don was dissatisfied that it would never have any applicability, and abandoned it.

By 2004, he had landed a very applicable topic, and has used his thesis research before and since to further his activities as a community organizer.

Clueless committees. Leslie Mueller Stewart ’64 wrote her thesis on A Study of the Tristan and Isolde Theme in “Finnegans Wake” for the English department. Her biggest problem was that nobody on the faculty was familiar with the book. Most of her orals committee had never even read it. Leslie could have easily fooled them all, but if ever the Honor Principle applied to a thesis defense, this must be the case.

Cavalier submissions. Olin K. Balch ’73 delivered his psychology thesis, The Restoration of Avoidance Responses, on horseback. Olin had been working part-time as a blacksmith, and got one of his clients to lend him a small, well-behaved horse. He conducted a dress rehearsal at a midnight the week before (generating some avoidance responses from students studying for finals). On thesis day, he galloped across the front lawn, dismounted to walk his horse up a flight of steps in Eliot Hall, remounted, and submitted his thesis to president Paul Bragdon. For Olin, this was a portent of things to come—he is now a respected veterinarian specializing in horses.

For more apocrypha about Reed football cheers and the Columbus Day Storm, visit the Reed Stories website at

reed magazine logoAutumn 2009