Deborah Harkness remembers the “ah-ha” moment that set her off on her intellectual journey. She was an undergraduate Renaissance studies major at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., when one day in class her history professor astounded her when he posed one simple question:
“How do you know what you think you know?” he asked.
A light bulb lit up for Harkness. When it comes to the study of history, the query demanded that she approach her understandings of the past with an empathetic eye. Everyone brings their singular perspective to the pursuit of knowledge, she realized, and context is everything.
“I thought, ‘Well, how do I know what I know is any more believable than what people believed in the past?’ People believed the Earth was in the center of the universe, and they had very sophisticated explanations to back up their theory.”
That question encouraged Harkness to approach the history of science in an open and non-judgmental way.
“What a powerful experience at an early age,” said Harkness, a professor of history in USC Dornsife.
That early experience continues to resonate with Harkness. Her research focuses on the history of science from 1400 to 1700, a time when science and magic were not considered distinctly separate from one another. Recently she has published two works of fiction that weave together history and the supernatural, A Discovery of Witches (Viking Adult, 2011) and Shadow of Night (Viking Adult, 2012). Both novels, the first two installments of the All Souls Trilogy, have made the New York Times bestseller list.
For her accomplishments, Mount Holyoke College has named Harkness a “Women of Influence.” The university’s list recognizes prestigious alumnae who have used their educations to contribute, inspire and lead.
Others to receive the honor include Frances Perkins, the first woman to hold a post in the United States Cabinet; poet Emily Dickinson; trailblazing physician and anesthesiologist Virginia Apgar; and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein.
The Mount Holyoke College “Women of Influence” list commemorates the 175th anniversary of the university’s opening. Founded in 1837, Mount Holyoke College is a research liberal arts college for women. It was the first member of the Seven Sisters consortium of colleges — the female equivalent of the once predominantly male Ivy League — which came to include Vassar College, Wellesley College, Smith College, Radcliffe College, Bryn Mawr College and Barnard College.
“For our Mount Holyoke Gallery of Women of Influence we selected alumnae who exemplify the bold and influential ways Mount Holyoke women engage the world,” said Patricia VandenBerg, executive director of communication at Mount Holyoke College.
“In many instances this has included breaking barriers and making boundaries permeable. In Deborah's case, her work in the history of science has been ground breaking, and her exquisite ability to make scholarship accessible through popular culture makes her exemplary and influential. We're very proud to claim Deborah as our own.”
After earning her bachelor’s degree from Mount Holyoke College in 1986, Harkness earned a master’s degree from Northwestern University and a Ph.D. from University of California, Davis. She joined USC Dornsife in 2004, the same year she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to study the history of science and technology. She has also received fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Science Foundation and the National Humanities Center.
Harkness has also authored two non-fiction works The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution (Yale University Press, 2007), which looks at the scientific community in 16th century London, and John Dee's Conversations with Angels: Cabala, Alchemy and the End of Nature (Cambridge University Press, 1999), about Dee, a natural philosopher in Elizabethan England.
Harkness said being named a “Woman of Influence” by Mount Holyoke College is an honor.
“To think that somehow I could be included among so many women who since 1837 have been making a difference because of their education is humbling,” she said.
Education is a lifelong journey, Harkness said, and she aims to give her students the skills and critical thinking abilities to inspire them to continue seeking discoveries well after their graduations.
“Those are the things that I got from my undergraduate education, and I absolutely want to give that sense to the students in my classroom,” she said.
Now Harkness poses questions to her students in USC Dornsife to inspire a deeper connection to the past. Much like the question she encountered as a student at Mount Holyoke, she hopes to instill empathy in her students so that they study history with an open mind.
“When I’m teaching my students about Henry VIII, I tell them to remember he was a teenager when he succeeded the throne,” Harkness said. “He was 19 — you’re 19! What would you do if you were put in charge of our country?”
“Hopefully it sticks with them that the people in the past were doing the best that they could in very challenging circumstances, and that it is more important to understand them than judge them.”