How to Cook a Thesis

"Your wooden arm you hold outstretched to shake with passers-by."

The senior thesis, a big chunk of original work, is the culmination of the honors track in the College, and it is ordinarily freighted with angst. Young scholars engaged in the struggle at this very moment might hope for a thesis adviser as "kind and good" as John V. Kelleher, professor of Irish studies, who died a year ago at 87.

"I met him for the first time in the autumn of 1950 when the English department assigned the poor man to me as my tutor," recalls David G. Nathan '51, M.D. '55, Stranahan distinguished professor of pediatrics and president emeritus of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. "I was then a senior and an English major. I had so hoped to be a tweedy professor, with leather patches on the elbows of my worn jacket and a pipe loaded with delightful tobaccos from Leavitt and Peirce, the smoke shop in the Square. But it was not to be. I simply had insufficient talent and had decided to go to medical school, largely because I knew that I would never compete in the intellectual gardens of English literature. So, with a heavy heart, I chose as the topic of my honors thesis the poetry of Matthew Arnold. He, too, had struggled with literature and science and had fought to preserve university life from the erosion of the scientific Philistines.

"I started the thesis with enthusiasm," Nathan remembers. "I had a draft nearly completed when I had my first meeting with Kelleher. I knew he was a great student of Irish literature and worried that an English Victorian poet would be of no interest to him. I told him about my thesis and watched him carefully. The professor had a severe stammer and it was hard to understand him at first. But it was apparent that he had little or no interest in Matthew Arnold. Despite his visible ennui, we made a date to meet a week hence.

"Then the trouble started. I began to hate Arnold, my topic, and the entire thesis. I realized that Arnold was a hopeless prig locked in a stupid battle with Thomas Huxley over curriculum and culture. It was nauseatingly dull. I returned for my next appointment. Kelleher was sitting at his desk with a sympathetic look on his face. I confessed that I hated my thesis and didn't want to finish it.

"'Oh don't worry, boy,' he answered in his lilting brogue. 'I can't bear the old bore either. So just forget about it—finish the damned thing and we won't discuss it at all.' Kelleher proposed that we spend the hour in Hayes-Bickford's, a now-vanished cafeteria where they had great apple pie. 'We'll have pie and coffee, and I'll read you Finnegans Wake. You'll get your honors. I'll reward you not to talk about Matthew Arnold.'

"So we met every week at the Bick," Nathan reports. "We ate apple pie, Kelleher read Joyce to me, and we talked about Irish literature. I did receive a cum laude and burned the thesis in Kelleher's honor."

Illustration by Mark Steele


Speaking of pie. For three years, Rachel Vessey '03 spent many of her evenings in the kitchen of Apthorp House, the eighteenth-century residence of the master and co-master of Adams House, baking pastry for hundreds of House residents, tutors, and visitors. "I take comfort in the routine of measuring flour, cracking eggs, and shaping cookies," she explains. "I had access to one of the best-equipped kitchens —and largest pantries—in all of Cambridge, and baking became an important part of my life." So fine were her brownies, cookies, and cakes that fame—and regularly the entire men's swimming team —came to tea at Adams House.

As the time approached to pick a thesis topic, Vessey, a history and literature concentrator, popped the notion of something on female activists in the early 1900s into her mental oven, but it failed to rise. Instead, she turned to the vast cookbook collection at the Schlesinger Library, and archives of correspondence regarding Peg Bracken's The I Hate to Cook Book and Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, to show what cookbooks tell about gender roles in mid-century America. She graduated magna.

Vessey had been designated Chief Domestic Goddess by her masters at Adams House. Now, out of the kitchen, she is a development director at two elementary schools in Harlem. Deep down she hungers for success as a writer about food. "Then I will be able to look back at all those nights baking cookies as the beginning of a long, interesting career path."

~Primus V  

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