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'Heat! Heat! Heat!': Sibley's Harvard Summers

July 19, 2013—An excessive heat warning is in effect in Cambridge, MA today, with a high of 96 degrees and a heat index near 110 degrees. John Langdon Sibley, Harvard’s librarian from 1856 until 1877, kept a detailed diary that provides a wealth of information about local and national events. On today's date in 1878, he wrote, "Terrible heat for many days; deaths, sunstrokes. This evening Transcript* has nearly a page of details respecting it, & its effects through the country." 

Sibley often wrote about the heat, even commenting on September 22, 1874, “Suffer greatly from heat, while others do not.” Other examples from his diary through the decades include:

  • On September 8, 1846: “Tuesday. The almost insufferably warm weather, which began to come on Aug 27, has been checked a little by showers this afternoon. The continuance of such heat for so many days in succession is almost unparalleled. And it is the more remarkable on account of the lateness of the season.”
  • On September 12, 1852: “Sunday. Since my severe application one year ago it seems as if I were unable to accomplish anything in warm weather. The heat wilts & enervates me & makes me sick.”
  • On July 23, 1854: “Sunday. The heat during the week has been oppressive. I have not been to the meeting house or attended any exercises since last Lord’s Day, except that I was present at Commencement dinner.”
  • On September 1, 1865: “Took the cars & stopped at South-Acton, whence I walked about three miles to James F. Whitney's in Stow, Mass. where I was so prostrated with the heat that I was sick during the greater part of the night.”
  • On July 15, 1868: “Commencement in the Unitarian meeting house…Heat intense—audience very small…The Heat during the last few days has been dreadful entirely prostrating many, & causing many deaths…Did not attend President’s reception—heat! heat! heat!”
  • On August 15, 1876: “…(T)he summer the hottest on record in New England. The newspapers record excessive heat in other countries.”
  • On July 5, 1878: “Went to Harvard Square. Intense heat. Have not been to Harvard Square since 30th of June.”
  • On May 21, 1879: “For several days the heat has been very oppressive and sultry, thermometer almost 90, and in the interior, higher than on the seaboard.”
  • On July 13, 1880: “The drought has been very severe & heat from 75 degrees upwards ranging generally from 86 degrees to more than 90 & even to 100 for several weeks. I have been so oppressed since my labors on the Quinquennial** that I have been nearly prostrated, unable to work.”
  • On August 25, 1880: “This has been an extraordinary summer for its uncommonly long and depressing heat.”

Sibley’s diary covers 37 years, with entries beginning on January 1, 1846 and ending on August 29, 1882. It is online and searchable by keyword.


*The Boston Evening Transcript, a daily afternoon newspaper published from 1830 to 1941.

**Quinquennial Catalogue of the Officers and Graduates of Harvard University, a file regularly updated through the mid-20th century containing basic bibliographical information on a large number of Harvard faculty, graduates, administrators and visitors.