Hunter Professor Emerita A MacArthur ’Genius’

December 15, 2008 | The University

More than four decades ago, when Nancy G. Siraisi had two small children and an entry-level job editing encyclopedias, she made a decision that changed her life.

“I’m from England, and I had a degree from an English University, and I had no intention to pursue other degrees,” said Siraisi, Hunter College’s distinguished professor emerita of history. “I found it difficult to work full-time. I wanted to shift to teaching and I needed graduate courses.”

She enrolled in a history course at Hunter College. Her instructor was professor Pearl Kibre, a scholar in medieval studies. “She saw that I knew a little Latin, and she immediately told me that I must enroll in a Ph.D. program,” Siraisi said. “She was a woman of great force of character, and I did so. I have never regretted it.”

Kibre was right: Siraisi, a historian of late Medieval and Renaissance medicine, is one of 25 recipients of the 2008 John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s prestigious “genius awards” that are presented annually to individuals for creativity and contributions to their fields. “Professor Kibre was a historian of considerable eminence, and what helped me was her encouragement,” Siraisi said. “The Graduate Center also gave me practical help that I can’t imagine I could have gotten anywhere else.”

Siraisi and her husband were of “very modest means,” so the Herbert H. Lehman Fellowship she received made it possible for her to continue her studies. She earned a doctorate in history from The Graduate Center in 1970 and for more than three decades taught history at Hunter and The Graduate Center. “I can’t remember how much the fellowship was, but it was the same or slightly higher than what I was making in my editing job, plus the University was tuition-free at that time,” she says. “I really do owe my entire academic career to CUNY.”

At 76, Siraisi plans to continue her research. “I have several projects, but I also see it as a validation of the work I’ve done already.” The $500,000 award, which is given out in $100,000 increments annually, will go a long way toward furthering her research. “It will make it easy to travel to European libraries and easy to get requests of scans and films of manuscripts, which can be quite costly,” she said.