“Chemistry and Physics Get Million from Loeb,” blared the Harvard Crimson headline. “Funds will modernize laboratory facilities and establish chemistry chairs.” The donor: scientist Morris Loeb ’83. A million dollars is indeed generous. But on the Harvard scale, did it really warrant a Crimson headline?
The answer is yes—given that Morris Loeb graduated not in 1983 but in 1883. In today’s dollars, his gift (received in 1953, upon the death of his widow) would be worth almost $9 million. A distinguished chemist and scion of a wealthy New York banking family, he was a philanthropist of both Jewish and non-Jewish institutions. Although wildly generous, he had some odd habits, such as hiding thousand-dollar bills under the wallpaper. Sadly, he died at 49 of typhoid, contracted from an oyster he ate at a chemical society convention. Reform Jews—especially of this period, and especially those born in Cincinnati—had no restrictions against eating shellfish.
What is the connection between Morris Loeb, the eccentric but brilliant scientist, and the Loeb Classical Library, a collection of more than 520 Greek and Latin volumes published by Harvard University Press and now entering its digital age? Morris’s strong-willed decision to go into chemistry instead of joining the family investment-banking business reportedly led to increased pressure on his younger brother James (Harvard ’88) to become part of Kuhn, Loeb & Co. with their father, Solomon. James, a sensitive lover of literature and music and a gifted cellist, reluctantly gave up a potential career as an archaeologist or a classicist to join the family business. But he never lost his love of Greek and Latin. And one result of his thwarted passion for antiquity was his decision to create the Loeb Classical Library in 1911.
He provided the inspiration for the series—the idea of having a facing page of English translation for each page of Greek or Latin text—and the financial backing, putting together an international team of scholars to move the project forward. The first 20 books appeared in 1912.
The Loeb Classical Library, spanning the classical corpus from Homer in the eighth century b.c.e. to Boethius in the sixth century c.e., has long been useful for several purposes. First, for scholars who need or want to read a Greek or Roman text but may not have the time or training to wade through the original, the presence of the Greek or Latin on the left side of the page makes it possible to see at a glance the exact terminology used by the author. Second, if someone is researching a broad topic, the Loebs are handy for looking up a geographical, grammatical, or mythological reference in an obscure ancient author’s works. Third, for students doing their Greek or Latin homework, the Loebs provide a shortcut way of translating a difficult passage without looking up all the vocabulary and parsing all the grammar.
Now, the Loeb Classical Library is about to become much more useful, having taken a great step forward: The entire collection has been digitized. You can now read any Loeb text online. You can view the Greek page, the Latin page, and the English page. You can search for specific English, Latin, or Greek words in a single author, multiple authors, or across the entire corpus. Do you want to know where the word “tyrant” appears in classical literature? You can search for the English word, the Greek word tyrannos, or the Latin word tyrannus. For searching Greek texts, the site is equipped with a virtual Greek keyboard that easily drops down on the screen. The user can make notes, highlight passages, and share them with others.
The digital Loeb Classical Library will be a transformative experience for professionals doing research and provide everyone else with a wonderful buffet of reading to browse.
Here is an example. In the summer of 1976, while my husband was working for the senatorial primary campaign of Daniel Patrick Moynihan against Bella Abzug and others, I was researching the topic of bee and honey imagery in Greek and Latin poetry. Because we had moved to New York temporarily, subletting an apartment with a mouse who lived next to the toaster, I had lost access to my university library and had to borrow a relative’s library card to sneak into the NYU library. To find references to the words “bee” and “honey” in ancient texts, it was necessary to search laboriously through indexes and concordances of individual authors in actual books. If the book was not on the shelf, I would have to go to the public library on 42nd Street and submit requests for the book to be brought to me—that is, if the librarians could find it.