Harry Elkins Widener
Born(1885-01-03)January 3, 1885
DiedApril 15, 1912(1912-04-15) (aged 27)
Alma materHarvard University (A.B., 1907)
Occupation(s)Businessman, book collector
Known forNamesake of Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library

Harry Elkins Widener (January 3, 1885 – April 15, 1912) was an American businessman and bibliophile, and a member of the Widener family. His mother built Harvard University's Widener Memorial Library in his memory, after his death on the foundering of the RMS Titanic.

Early life and education

Widener's 1908 bookplate[1]
Widener Library at Harvard University, named in his honor
Letter to his friend, Luther S. Livingston: "We... return on April 10th on the maiden voyage of the Titanic..."
Posthumous portrait of Widener by Gabriel Ferrier in 1913

Widener was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of George Dunton Widener (1861–1912) and Eleanor Elkins Widener, and the grandson of entrepreneur Peter A. B. Widener (1834–1915). He attended The Hill School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, and graduated from Harvard College in 1907, where he was a member of Hasty Pudding Theatricals and the Owl Club. Widener's godfather was the British banking magnate, Charles Mills, the 2nd Baron Hillingdon.[2][3]

Book collecting

Widener was a member of the Grolier Club.[4][5]

Book collector and dealer George Sidney Hellman, following Widener's death, said,

the excellence of his technical knowl­edge ... His enthusiasm as a collector and his winning person­ali­ty ... afforded many opportunities of obtaining treasures whose acquisition cannot be explained alone on the basis of the wealth which he commanded. Had he not perished in the Titanic catastrophe, beyond question ... his library would surely have eventually become one of the greatest collec­tions of books in modern times. [He] was not satisfied alone in having a rare book or a rare book inscribed by the author; it was with him a prerequisite that the volume should be in immaculate condition.[6]

Titanic sinking

Along with his parents, in April 1912 Widener boarded the Titanic at Cherbourg, France bound for New York City. As the ship sank Widener's mother and her maid were rescued, but Widener, his father, and his father's valet perished. In 1915, Widener's mother donated the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library to Harvard in his memory. Two buildings at the Hill School are also dedicated to Widener, and stained glass windows at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, are dedicated to Widener and his father.

A Harvard legend holds that in order to spare others her son's fate, Widener's mother insisted, as a condition of her gift, that future Harvard graduates be required to learn to swim. However, while Harvard implemented a swimming test in the 1920s, which it later dropped, the policy was unrelated to Widener.[7]

Further reading


  1. ^ Houghton Library, Harvard University, HEW 2.2.15
  2. ^ "Family tree of Harry Elkins WIDENER". Geneanet. Retrieved 2022-03-16.
  3. ^ "Hillingdon, 2nd Baron, (Charles William Mills) (26 Jan. 1855–6 April 1919)", Who Was Who, Oxford University Press, 2007-12-01, doi:10.1093/ww/9780199540884.013.u197890, retrieved 2022-03-16
  4. ^ John Woolf Jordan (1911). Colonial Families of Philadelphia. Lewis Publishing Company. pp. 1500–.
  5. ^ Grolier Club (1921). Transactions of the Grolier Club. Grolier Club. pp. 179–.
  6. ^ George S. Hellman (June 2, 1912). "Harvard To Get Harry Widener's Famous Library – Titanic Victim, Though Hardly Out Of College – Acquired A Fine Collection Of Books That He Willed To His Alma Mater – His Grandfather Adds A Memorial Wing To House It" (PDF). The New York Times.
  7. ^ Mann, Elizabeth (December 9, 1993), "The First Abridged Dictionary of Harvard Myths", The Harvard Independent, pp. 10–11