Saturday, May 16, 2015

A Letter from Paris

Last week, I was sorting the mail for my building as I do almost every day, when I found an envelope from Paris, addressed to Mrs. Wallace C. Sabine.

The name was vaguely familiar, but I knew she hadn't lived here in the past 20 years. And some instinct told me she was long dead. So I opened it. Inside was a letter and two photocopies:

It was from a man working on a documentary film project on this history of acoustics. It said:
... I gather archives illustrating the topic, in which can be found a famous contributor from the end of the Nineteenth Century: a Harvard Professor called Wallace C. Sabine.
   This Professor lived in this very house — as mentioned on his biography's original edition. And despite there is only a little chance that you, reading this letter today, would still be related to him, I would really be happy if you could be of any help (e.g. with photos).
   Naturally no answer is expected from you if you are not related to Professor Sabine
Thank you in any case...
"Geez, truly right up my alley," I thought as I looked at the photocopies. One showed the spine of an old biography:

The other showed the book's flyleaf. The French documentarist had somehow gotten Mrs. Wallace C. Sabine's own copy, inscribed with her name... and my her my address. Her handwriting looked kind of hurried and messy for a turn-of-the-century Boston lady inscribing her late husband's biography, I thought. In those days, most educated people prided themselves on their penmanship.

The Frenchman hadn't provided his email address, so my first task was to find it. Then I went to This site is both a research tool and a swell way to waste time satisfying one's curiosity about people who lived in Back Bay in its heyday. The site is fairly knew, and I'd heard it had been created by a retired couple who moved here and wanted a project. It's to explore the comings and goings of Back Bay's residents over the past century and a half. The one constant is that they have always moved a LOT. Check out several addresses at random and you'll see what I mean. Even when these houses were new they changed hands frequently, and were often rented out when their owners traveled for any length of time.

When I looked up the page for my address, I saw that only two families had owned it between 1878, when it was built, and 1950. The first owners were the Heaths, a widow with two sons. One son married a first cousin and raised their children here. The widow died in 1901 but everyone else lived here until 1909.

Then Professor Wallace Clement Sabine and Dr. Jane Downes Kelly Sabine bought the house and moved in with their two little girls. As reports:
Walter [sic] Sabine was a physicist who founded the field of architectural acoustics, serving as a consultant in the design of various Harvard Buildings, Boston Symphony Hall, and other major structures.  He was a professor of physics at Harvard and served as Dean of Harvard’s Scientific School. 
Jane (Kelly) Sabine was a physician and surgeon, and was one of five women surgeons elected to the American College of Surgeons when it was organized in 1913.
A surgeon... so that's why her handwriting was so messy. She was widowed in 1919, added the fourth floor to the house as an apartment around 1929, kept on practicing medicine into the 1930s, and died at home in 1950.

I got busy on Google, and The snippets of info and the photos I found there were fascinating. It was strange but wonderful to see their faces, to read about their lives and deaths, and to imagine them living in the same room where I was sitting. I'll tell you more about them soon. 

I emailed the Frenchman with info about the family, including names and locations of the Sabine's great-grandchildren. Then I asked my husband (perhaps the first Harvard prof to live here since Prof. Sabine) to reserve two books for me from Widener Library: the biography the Frenchman had, and a book of writings of the Sabines' daughter, Ruth, privately printed by Dr. Sabine after Ruth died at 16. Ruth wanted to be a writer, and Dr. Sabine wanted her memory to live on.

And so it does. 

More later.

1 comment:

  1. What a story--I have chills down my spine! It's just the Frenchman's luck that you were the one who had come across his letter! When you read Dr. Sabine's biography you'll have to tell us if he had any cats.



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