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Archives & Manuscripts

William W. Birdsall Papers

Identifier: SFHL-RG6-D05
This collection consists of President Birdsall's correspondence, lists of prospective students, class lists of alumni, and other miscellaneous material. The collection is organized into the following series:
  1. Swarthmore College
  2. Miscellaneous material


  • 1898-1902


Limitations on Accessing the Collection

Use if this material is restricted and requires the permission of the President of Swarthmore College or the Chairman of the Board of Managers of the College. Contact the repository for details.

Copyright and Rights Information

Copyright has not been assigned to Friends Historical Library. All requests for permission to publish or quote from manuscripts must be submitted to the Director. Permission for publication is given on behalf of the Friends Historical Library as the owner of the physical items and is not intended to include or imply permission of the copyright holder, which must also be obtained by the reader.


0.25 Linear Feet (1 box)


This collection contains correspondence, lists of prospective students, class lists of alumni, and miscellaneous material of William W. Birdsall, fifth President of Swarthmore College (1898-1902).

Biographical / Historical

William Wilfred Birdsall was a birthright Quaker, son of Thomas and Mary B. (Thistlethwaite) Birdsall and born in Indiana in 1854. He received a BS from Earlham College in 1873 and went on to teach at the Richmond (IN) High School. He then became president of Boys High School in Wilmington, Delaware. In 1880 he married Viola Isabel McDill. In 1885, he became a teacher at Friends Central School in Philadelphia and soon was promoted to president of that school. In 1898 he was selected to be President of Swarthmore College. His selection was an attempt by the Board of Managers to emphasize the Quakerly qualities of the College after the more rigorous academic goals of his predecessor, Charles De Garmo, who served from 1891-1898.

During Birdsall's administration, the changes at the College included a complete readjustment of the teaching staff, installation of a new heating system, building of a new gym for the male students, and the introduction of a pre-medical course (1900-01). Birdsall's goal was to increase the number of Swarthmore students by offering an increased number of scholarships. While Birdsall succeeded in attracting more attention to the College from the Quaker community, he had critics among alumni and faculty and students who felt that more attention should be placed on the quality of the school rather than its denominational affiliation. His critics were concerned that his experience did not prepare him sufficiently for a college presidency. The Board made the decision to change the focus of the College and to seek a president with stronger academic credentials. After serving the College for only four years, Birdsall resigned from his position in 1902 and became Principal of Girls' High School of Philadelphia. He remained in this position until his death on March 17, 1909. Birdsall's successor was Joseph Swain who had been President of Indiana University and agreed to come to Swarthmore only if he was given more authority as President of the College.

Physical Location

For current information on the location of materials, please consult the Library's online catalog.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Donor: College President's Office

Processing Information

This collection was originally processed in the 1970s at which time materials were sorted, placed into folders, and inventoried. In 1998/99, as part of the reorganization of the Swarthmore College Archives, the collection was reprocessed. Items were placed into acid-free folders and identification clarified. A revised finding aid was produced.
Finding Aid for William W. Birdsall Papers, 1898-1902
FHL staff
Description rules
Language of description

Revision Statements

  • 2016: This electronic finding aid was updated in Summer 2016 by Abdulrezak Kemal in preparation for importing into ArchivesSpace, to conform to current markup standards and the ArchivesSpace data model.

Find It at the Library

Most of the materials in this catalog are not digitized and can only be accessed in person. Please see our website for more information about visiting Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College Library

500 College Avenue
Swarthmore Pennsylvania 19081 USA