Gessner Harrison was born on June 26, 1807, in Harrisonburg, the second of seven children of Peachy Harrison and Mary Stuart Harrison. His father was a prominent physician and politician who served in the House of Delegates (1816–1817) and the Constitutional Convention of 1829–1830. Peachy Harrison loved literature, and he named his son after Salomon Gessner, a popular eighteenth-century Swiss poet. As a child Gessner Harrison read voraciously and spent his spare time in his father's extensive library. He was an intelligent, studious child who began attending school at the age of four and studying Latin at the age of eight. Religious instruction infused Harrison's early education. His father was a devout Methodist, and three of his teachers were prominent Presbyterian ministers.
Harrison he found the university's medical courses difficult and demanding. He worked tirelessly, however, and in 1828 became one of the first three students to receive a medical degree from the school. He also studied ancient languages under the English-born professor George Long, excelling in Latin and Greek. When Long returned to England in 1828, he recommended that Harrison replace him on the University of Virginia faculty.
Surprised by the recommendation of a twenty-one-year-old, the board of visitors nonetheless granted Harrison a one-year appointment as professor of ancient languages. In his first year, Harrison struggled with self-doubt. In a letter to George Long in August 1829, he admitted that he felt unprepared for the task of "converting my stock of information, which is not the greatest, into a useful instruction to my class." He felt inferior to the older and more accomplished professors and lamented his "many deficiencies" as a professor. By the end of the year he had succeeded well enough to receive a renewal of his appointment. He remained with the university for another thirty years.
In 1839, Thomas Russell and William Binford confronted Harrison as he was leaving a lecture. They had recently been suspended for "gross violations" of university rules, and they blamed Harrison—who was then serving as faculty chairman—for their dismissal. Binford held Harrison while Russell struck him several times with a horsewhip. A crowd gathered, and another student eventually intervened to stop the attack. Harrison rebuked Russell and Binford for their disgraceful attack—prompting them to renew the assault before fleeing on horseback toward Lynchburg.
December 15, 1830, Harrison married Eliza Lewis Carter Tucker, the daughter of George Tucker, one of the university's original faculty members. They had at least ten children, of whom four boys and three girls survived to maturity. In many ways, Harrison did not conform to the model of aggressive, honor-bound masculinity prevalent in the antebellum South, preferring a quiet, earnest life of study. He worked himself to exhaustion and loved nature and music. In other ways, however, Harrison was a typical member of the southern elite. He owned as many as nine slaves as well as substantial property. In 1860, he owned $42,000 in real estate and $25,842 in personal property.
Late in 1861, one of Harrison's sons returned home from the war to recover from a severe case of camp fever. The illness persisted for several months, and Harrison insisted on nursing his son himself. Years of overwork had worn down Harrison's health, and while his son slowly recovered, Harrison himself contracted the disease. He died on April 7, 1862, and was buried in the University of Virginia Cemetery.
- The Geography of Ancient Italy and Southern Greece (1834)
- Exposition of Some of the Laws of the Latin Grammar (1852)
- Treatise on the Greek Prepositions and the Nouns with Which These are Used (1858)
June 26, 1807 - Gessner Harrison is born in Harrisonburg.
March 1825 - Gessner Harrison is the fifth student to register for the opening session of the University of Virginia.
1828 - Gessner Harrison receives a medical degree from the University of Virginia, one of the first three students to do so. He joins the faculty that year, but as a classics professor.
May 21, 1830 - John Willis, a student at the University of Virginia, assaults Professor Gessner Harrison, and is later expelled for it.
December 15, 1830 - Gessner Harrison and Eliza Lewis Carter Tucker marry at the University of Virginia. They will have at least ten children.
1831–1832 - Gessner Harrison serves as secretary of the faculty at the University of Virginia.
1833 - Students at the University of Virginia set off a firecracker outside the door of Professor Gessner Harrison, in Pavilion VI.
1836 - A drunk student at the University of Virginia accosts Professor Gessner Harrison with "disrespectful and profane" language.
1837–1839 - Gessner Harrison serves as faculty chairman at the University of Virginia.
1839 - Thomas Russell and William Binford, students at the University of Virginia, assault Professor Gessner Harrison with a horsewhip, after which they flee on horseback.
1840–1842 - Gessner Harrison serves as faculty chairman at the University of Virginia.
1847–1854 - Gessner Harrison serves as faculty chairman at the University of Virginia.
1859 - Gessner Harrison resigns from the University of Virginia to establish a school for boys.
1860 - Gessner Harrison purchases land in Nelson County for his school for boys.
April 7, 1862 - Gessner Harrison dies and is buried in the University of Virginia Cemetery.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Neumann, B. Gessner Harrison (1807–1862). (2018, February 2). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Harrison_Gessner_1807-1862.
- MLA Citation:
Neumann, Brian. "Gessner Harrison (1807–1862)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 2 Feb. 2018. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: November 6, 2017 | Last modified: February 2, 2018
Contributed by Brian Neumann, a graduate student in the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia.