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A Brief History of the Department of French and Romance Philology

Founded in 1890, the Department of French and Romance Philology is one of the oldest French departments in the country and its tradition of cutting edge scholarship continues to this day.

Although a Professorship of French Literature was established at Columbia as early as 1784, the modern history of French at Columbia begins with the creation of the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures by the Trustees on January 6, 1890. The Department was small in its early years. Its faculty consisted of two professors, one adjunct professor, one instructor, and two tutors. The professors, Adolphe Cohn and Henry Alfred Todd, had been hired away from Harvard and Stanford, respectively.

Adolphe Cohn was born and educated in Paris: he moved to New York as archiviste paléographe from the Ecole des chartes. From 1876 to 1884, he was the American correspondent of La République française, edited by Gambetta, whom he had known in France, and whose political views he had adopted. He chaired the Department from 1891 until his retirement in 1917. Even though he was a philologist by training, Cohn taught literature rather than philology.

Henry Alfred Todd, born in Woodstock, Illinois, received his B.A. from Princeton in 1876, and his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins in 1885. He was one of the first American-trained scholars of French literature, and an eminent philologist. He founded the Romanic Review in 1910 with the collaboration of his younger colleague Raymond Weeks (Ph.D., Harvard, 1897) who had joined the Columbia faculty in 1909.

As the emphasis gradually shifted from philology to literature, the link between French, Spanish and Italian seemed increasingly tenuous, and the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures was divided into three sections in 1929. The section of Romance Philology and French, then headed by Henri F. Muller, was later renamed Department of French and Romance Philology.

The very successful partnership between Cohn and Todd, who led the Department together during its first twenty-five years, has defined the subsequent history of the Columbia French Department. Throughout the twentieth century and to this day, it has been a thriving point of contact between American and European scholarship in the field of French literature and culture.

For further information, click here to download an information sheet on French at Columbia (PDF).

We invite you to learn more about our present-day faculty, as well as our graduate and undergraduate programs.

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