Daniel Chester French’s 1885 tribute to John Harvard is the focal point of Harvard Yard and the preferred photo op of incoming students, who handle his feet so frequently that the patina of the bronze is worn bare. Allegedly that makes it the third most photographed statue in America, after the Statue of Liberty, and the seated Lincoln, also by French, at the Lincoln Memorial in D.C. But that’s not the most interesting thing about this statue.
The inscription, reading “John Harvard, Founder, 1638”, is erroneous for two reasons. An English priest who settled in Boston, Harvard left his library and half of his savings to the proposed college, making him a major benefactor, but not exactly a founder. Secondly, this happened in 1636, not 1638, which was the year construction began.
The biggest discrepancy is that the man depicted in the statue is not John Harvard. All likenesses of him were destroyed in the fire that consumed the school’s library and archives on January 24, 1764. Depending on who you listen to, the substitute face was either modeled after Massachusetts congressman and Harvard Law alum Sherman Hoar, or simply an unnamed assistant at French’s studio.