Before They Were Stars












n December, Columbia University Press published one of the senior theses of David Foster Wallace ’85. This was not the English thesis that morphed into his acclaimed first novel, The Broom of the System­­, but the one he wrote for his philosophy major. Titled “Richard Taylor’s ‘Fatalism’ and the Semantics of Physical Modality,” the thesis is the basis of the new 264-page book Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will.

Wallace, who took his own life on Sept. 12, 2008, was famous and talented enough that people other than his adviser actually want to read his thesis. He is likely the only Amherst alum to have had two undergraduate honors projects published by major publishing companies.

Hearing about Fate, Time, and Language led us to wonder about the senior theses of other well-known, influential alumni. We mined the online catalog of Frost Library, which has a collection of theses dating from 1934 to the present, seeking a window into the academic interests of students who went on to become poets, politicians, Nobel laureates.

What follows is a small sampling of what we found, presented as a matching game. Try to match the alum to the thesis title. Answers are in red at the end.

1. FoxTrot cartoonist Bill Amend ’84
A.“The Murder of Evil: A Study of Charles Dickens” (English)
2. Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Debby Applegate ’89
B. “Nitrous-Oxide Reductase from Denitrifying Pseudomonas Perfectomarinus: An Unusual Multicopper Enzyme” (Chemistry)
3. Novelist Chris Bohjalian ’82
C. "Conquest and Expansion: Some Aspects of the Relations Between Blacks and Indians in the United States” (Special Programs)   
4. Get Fuzzy cartoonist Darby Conley ’94D. “Á la Recherche du Temps Perdu: Impressionism in Literature” (English)
5. U.S. Senator (D-Del.) Chris Coons ’85
E. “Every Kid’s Monster Handbook” (Fine Arts)
6. Lawyer and former NFL tight end Jean Fugett ’72
F. “Camera Simulation by Computer” (Physics)
7. Painter and printmaker Michael Mazur ’57
G. “A Study in the Philosophy of William James” (Philosophy)
8. Poet James Merrill ’47
H. “The New Directions Reforms in Foreign Aid: The Process and Limitations of a Change” (Political Science)
9. Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou ’75
I. An Image of Salomé, woodcut, now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (Fine Arts)
10. Julie & Julia author Julie Powell ’95
J. “As the Crow Flies” (English) and a performance of Elizabeth Egloff’s The Swan (Theater and Dance)
11. Amherst professor and critic William H. Pritchard ’53K. “Courtesies and Careers: The Women’s College Tradition and the Challenge of Coeducation” (American Studies)
12. Biochemist and MacArthur Fellow Amy Rosenzweig ’88
L. “Circles: The Process of a Play” (Theater and Dance) and “'Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone': A Performer’s Journey Around Billie Holiday” (English)
13. Film director and screenwriter David O. Russell ’81EM. “Functions of Ethnic Identity: The Greek Community of Springfield, Massachusetts, and the Greek Community of the United States” (Special Programs)
14. Singer/songwriter Amy Speace ’90
N. “A Study of the Effects of Gamma Radiation on Four Genes Exhibiting Complete Interference on the X-Chromosome of Drosophila Melanogaster” (Biology)
15. Environmental activist David Suzuki ’58O. “Breach of Faith: The Facts and the Fictions of the Beecher-Tilton Scandal” (American Studies)
16. Nobel laureate and National Cancer Institute director Harold Varmus ’61
P. “A Study of Intervention and Justification: The U.S. in Chile, 1963–1973” (Political Science)

1-F   2-O   3-K   4-E   5-H   6-C   7-I   8-D   9-M   10-J   11-G   12-B   13-P   14-L   15-N   16-A

Tags:  alumni  theses