Prosser Gifford of Woods Hole, Massachusetts, scholar, author, poet and institutional administrator, died peacefully in his home on July 5, 2020 with family by his side. He was 91.
Prosser led a self-described “life of learning,” first through prodigious study, followed by more than thirty years in higher education administration that included researching and publishing five books and countless articles, teaching college and graduate students at Amherst College, Swarthmore, and Yale University and directing several think tanks and centers of scholarship and inquiry in Washington, DC and Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
He was born May 16, 1929 in New York City, the only child of Barbara Prosser and John Archer Gifford. He was the grandson of Constance Barber Prosser and Seward Prosser, Chairman of Bankers Trust Co. and philanthropist who came to Falmouth in 1909, and Helen Conyngham Gifford and Charles Alling Gifford, of Newark, New Jersey, an architect who designed the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire and numerous armories and courthouses on the East coast extant today.
Prosser earned degrees from Yale University in 1951; Merton College, Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar in 1953; Harvard Law School in 1956; and a PhD in History from Yale University in 1964. Lured by Calvin Plimpton, President of Amherst College, he became the first Dean of the Faculty (Provost) at Amherst in 1967. He and Plimpton led Amherst through the tumultuous years of student protests and demonstrations opposing the Vietnam War in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Prosser wrote that his proudest achievements during his twelve-year tenure as Dean were leading the commission that resulted in Amherst College Trustees admitting women in 1974 and increasing the number of women faculty members from one when he arrived to twenty-six when he left in 1979.
Throughout his life, Prosser served on the Board of Trustees of numerous schools, colleges, nonprofit research, poetry and academic institutions and was President of the Merton College Corporation, Oxford.
He thrived on rigorous intellectual debate and an overarching theme in his life was bringing together people of diverse minds and experiences to share ideas and challenge each other in civil discourse. After leaving Amherst College he became Deputy Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, bringing together hundreds of scholars from around the world to collaborate on research, writing, and discussion of national and world issues. The Wilson Quarterly described Prosser as an “exemplar of the strenuous life.” He was tireless in his pursuit of knowledge, reading three to four books a week and amassing a library of over 9,000 volumes in his home, organized using his proprietary Gifford Decimal System.
After eight years at the Wilson Center, Prosser became Director of Scholarly Programs at the Library of Congress, a position created for him which he held for fifteen years until his retirement in 2005. He was the first director of the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress that brought together some of the world’s eminent thinkers and supervised the selection of the $1 million Kluge Prize for lifetime achievement in the humanities and social sciences.
In 2005, Prosser and his wife Deedee moved from Washington, DC to Woods Hole, MA, where he spent his time writing a book and serving on the board or volunteering with numerous local institutions. He was Chairman of the Board of Trustees at the Marine Biological Laboratory for thirteen years, was an Honorary Member of the Corporation of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), President of the Woods Hole Public Library and served in varying capacities for a dozen other organizations including the Falmouth Chorale, Falmouth Academy, Highfield Hall and the Church of the Messiah.
Since a young child, Prosser’s great passion was sailing. He met his wife Deedee in a sailing race in Woods Hole when he was 11 years old and she was 9. They were active members of the Ensign fleet in Quissett. Many claim Deedee was the better skipper. He crewed for the Bermuda Race half a dozen times and raced trans-Atlantic twice, once a hurricane-filled trial from New York to Spain. He captained his own boat the Windhover twenty-eight times between Woods Hole and Solomons Island, Maryland, a trip that became known as the “Annual Stress Test” for its unpredictable weather, mechanical mishaps and unsuspecting crew that thought they were joining a pleasure cruise up or down the East coast.