Agnes Baldwin Brett

by Aviva Gray

The following biography of Agnes Baldwin Brett, the first female curator at the ANS, traces the path of her career from her education in the Classics and Archaeology and her travel and research abroad, to her later achievements as an internationally recognized scholar of classical numismatics. The images accompanying this article were discovered during the Society’s move downtown and represent only a small selection of highlights from Baldwin Brett’s collection now housed in the Society’s archives. Baldwin Brett’s photographs from Greece in 1900 are mainly featured here. However, the collection also includes glass plate negatives, research notes, casts from her numerous publications, as well as photographs of the cabinet and galleries at the ANS, and of her travels throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. While a larger study of the images is required, here we place them within the framework of Baldwin Brett’s life, travels and career as a scholar. A brief sketch of the life of Agnes Baldwin Brett and a full bibliography of her published works can also be found at the ANS Archives Website at:

Travel from Athens to Salamis by barouche.

Agnes Baldwin Brett was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1876, the daughter of Fredrick Wellington Baldwin, a wealthy leather merchant, and the Former Mary A. Wheeler. She completed her high school education in Newark, and in 1893 she began attending Barnard College. Baldwin Brett was a member of the fifth class of students at the College, which was founded in 1889. By 1900 only 2.8% of American women received a higher education, therefore at the time this opportunity was still very unusual and only available to women from well to do families. Baldwin Brett enrolled at Barnard as a pre-college student studying chemistry for the 1893-94 academic year; in her first semester she also began her studies of Greek, Latin, and German languages and literature. By mid-year, she was offered a special exam and admitted as a regular degree student in the second term. Having studied a broad range of topics including Classics, Sociology, Economics, and Rhetoric, she received her Bachelor of Arts in 1897.

Baldwin Brett with Ernest Babelon.

Athens, the Roman Agora.

It was at Barnard that Baldwin Brett began to study ancient Greek language and literature. During this early stage of her training, her interest in Classical Art and Archaeology also developed while studying under professors such as James Rignall Wheeler, who was later the Chairman of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens from 1901 to 1918. Wheeler’s course on Pausanias was an important source for her undergraduate thesis written on the location of the famed spring of Enneakrounos in Athens. This early research included careful study of the extant archaeological and art historical evidence, the topography of ancient sites, and philological analysis. At the turn of the last century the identity of the site of the spring, as well as of many other sites and monuments in Athens, was a topic of great debate, since it was during this period that many of the first formal excavations began in the city, and scholarship at that time relied heavily on ascertaining the accuracy of Pausanias’ description of Greece as well as the often conflicting accounts of Thucydides. The spring, according to Pausanias’ travel guide, written in the second century AD, was located in the Athenian Agora. In support of Pausanias’ account, the arguments put forth in Baldwin Brett’s thesis countered the view of contemporary scholarship which held that the spring was located elsewhere in Athens. Most notably, her discussion dismissed the findings from fieldwork currently taking place under the German archaeologist Wilhelm Dörpfeld, one of the most preeminent archaeologists of the time. While some debate about the location of the spring still persists today, Pausanias’ description of the monument’s location is generally accepted and the alternative position proposed by Dörpfeld has long been disregarded. This broad based research showed a care and complexity that would be characteristic of Baldwin Brett’s work throughout her lifetime.

In 1898 Baldwin Brett was accepted into the masters program in Classics at Columbia where she specialized in archaeology. During her first year of graduate work at Columbia she was appointed Ella Weed Scholar at Barnard College where she taught courses in Greek and Latin, and conducted private tutoring sessions in the classical languages while completing her graduate work. Baldwin Brett received her AM from the University in 1900. In that year she was awarded a second fellowship that would shape the path of her future research significantly, a scholarship to attend the American School of Classical Studies at Athens.

Students from the American School at the Acropolis, Brett is the first woman seated to the left.

Baldwin Brett shipboard with her Kodak Box Brownie camera.

The scholarship to attend the school in Athens was the first fellowship ever offered to a woman by the University. This unique award was obtained through the support of Emily Putnam, the Dean of Barnard College, and wife of publishing mogul George Haven Putnam. In addition to being Dean, Putnam was a notable scholar and feminist who was also an Associate of History, Greek, and Latin at Columbia, and a strong advocate of equality for women within the university system. Her legacy to Barnard is best reflected in the changes she brought to the educational program there by improving the quality and quantity of advanced courses offered to students, particularly in the Classics, and by opening Columbia’s libraries and graduate courses to Barnard women. Putnam also demanded greater support of female students at Columbia through scholarships to the University. For Baldwin Brett, Putnam’s role as a mentor would prove invaluable. In an interview with the Barnard College Alumnae Monthly in 1937, Baldwin Brett recalled the experience saying, “There were at the time no fellowships for women, but upon investigation it was found that the relevant section of the Charter of the university actually provided such grants for Columbia students. This had always been interpreted to mean men, but it was found legal to include me, and so I was awarded a fellowship for a year’s study at Athens—with no “stipend” attached! However, an unnamed patron came forward with a “stipend”, and I borrowed the rest from my grandfather (to the horror of my family), and was off to Athens.”

In 1900 Baldwin Brett began the first of two fellowship years at the American School. Work at the School consisted of lectures and study under important classical scholars including Wilhelm Dörpfeld and other leading archaeologists of the time. Studies also consisted of travel and examination of ancient sites in Athens, mainland Greece and the islands. Baldwin Brett’s photographs from this time document their travel to the monuments and excavations, in addition to depicting the landscape, and local cultures of Greece. These include images of Athens and the Acropolis before its monuments were reconstructed; Delphi during the first stages of excavation at the site; Tiryns and Mycenae with monumental sculpture—now in the National Archaeological Museum—still in situ; and early images of sites such as Epidaurous and Eleusis among many others. Travel to the sites was done either on foot, by bicycle or a horse-drawn barouche.

Students from the American School bicycling to the sites.

Athens, Hadrian’s Gate.

It was through her work at the School that Baldwin Brett developed her interest in Greek and Roman numismatics. In her second year in Athens, Baldwin Brett received the Agnes Hoppin Memorial Fellowship, which was established at the American School by the Hoppin family to “lift the restrictions on women in the study of archaeology” (Thompson, 1971: 467-7). The American School had recently established large-scale excavations at Corinth. At the time female students were excluded from participating in excavations and were instead only allowed to catalog smaller artifacts unearthed at the site. In this case Baldwin Brett was responsible for cataloging the numismatic finds from the excavation. Many years later, in his preliminary report for the excavations at Corinth from 1925, published in the American Journal of Archaeology, T. Leslie Shear, the director of the School makes special mention of Baldwin Brett’s careful study and cataloging of the coins from the site. This work at the American School established Baldwin Brett’s interest in Numismatics and also demonstrated the thoroughness of her scholarship.

Professor Dörpfeld lecturing to students.

Corinth, 1900.

Having been denied the right to participate in the dig at Corinth, two of Baldwin Brett’s contemporaries at the American School, Lida Shaw King and Ida Thallon Hill sought to find a site where they themselves could excavate. In the spring of 1901 the School began work on the sacred cave at Vari in southern Attica. Shaw and Hill contributed to the cost of the excavation, and thus were permitted to join the men from the School in the actual excavation. This was the first project to allow women to excavate on mainland Greece. While Baldwin Brett did not herself excavate, she was a member of the team that worked on the site, and in 1903 she published the numismatic finds from this historic dig in the American Journal of Archaeology.

The Propylea, or monumental entrance to the Acropolis.

In 1908, upon the recommendation of Edward Newell during the early stage of his association with the ANS, Baldwin Brett was invited to become a member of the American Numismatic Society. Shortly after, in 1909, she was appointed Assistant Curator of the Museum’s collection, a newly created position, before being promoted to sole Curator of the ANS collection the next year. Her post at the Society was established and funded by support from Archer M. Huntington. Between 1912 and 1914 the ANS provided Baldwin Brett with funding to travel abroad and study the numismatic holdings of the European museums and private collections. Baldwin Brett consulted collections in England, Scotland, France, Germany, Austria, and Belgium, and studied extensively with the French numismatist Ernest Babelon at the Cabinet des Médailles in Paris. At this point, her title was changed to Associate Curator of the Society. During her time abroad, her research focused on the preparation of two studies on the coins issued by city-states in Asia Minor from the 7th century BC through the imperial period. Her first two books, The Electrum Coinage of Lampsakos and The Electrum and Silver Coins of Chios, both published in 1914, were the result of this period of study.

Throughout her career, Baldwin Brett made many significant and lasting contributions to ancient numismatics and the broader study of the ancient world. In 1919 the ANS honored Baldwin Brett as the second recipient of the Archer M. Huntington Medal. She received this award in recognition of her outstanding work in the field of numismatics after the publication of her works on Lampsakos and Chios and a third monograph, Symbolism on Greek Coins, which analyzed the typology of Greek coins in relationship to parallel imagery on contemporary statuary, urns, and other sculpture. Her most well known work was the Catalog of Greek Coins, produced for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts where she was appointed honorary curator of classical coins. This book detailing the Museum’s collection came to publication shortly after her death in 1955. Both this catalog and her study of facing heads on ancient Greek coins were republished twenty years after their initial publication, a testament to the lasting nature of her work. Baldwin Brett was an authority on Roman Medallions, publishing four books on this subject, and in 1938 she chaired the committee for an exhibition of Roman coins from period of Augustus. She also published many additional important numismatic monographs and scholarly articles on coins of the ancient world. The enduring quality of Baldwin Brett’s work and the accuracy of her analysis of artifacts are demonstrated by the continuing relevance of her standard reference works today.

Delphi prior to its full excavation.

The Temple of Athena Nike on the Acropolis in Athens.

Outside of her research Baldwin Brett was a visiting lecturer of Archaeology at Columbia from 1936 to 1937, where she conducted courses on Numismatics at the Society upon the request of William Bell Dinsmoor, a scholar of the Parthenon, and a founder of the University’s Department of Art History. Baldwin Brett also greatly enriched the Society’s academic resources. In 1915, she established the ANS’ photographic file of Greek and Roman coins sold at auction, which continues to serve as a valuable resource today. Among many other honors, Baldwin Brett was a fellow of the Royal Numismatic Society and the first American women to receive their medal recognizing scholars ‘highly distinguished for services to Numismatic Science’. She was also an honorary member of the Société Royale de Numismatique de Belgique.

However, Baldwin Brett’s achievements were not limited to classical studies. In the 1910s and 1920s she did considerable work on medallic art and modern American sculpture. As the Society’s Curator she arranged the catalogue for the International Medallic Exhibition of 1910. Then, in 1923, Archer M. Huntington requested that Baldwin Brett write a second catalog for the Exhibition of Modern Sculpture at the ANS, which was produced in conjunction with the National Sculpture Society. This was one of the most extensive exhibitions of modern sculpture at the time. Baldwin Brett was also an important collector of ancient Babylonian cylinder seals, and in 1936 the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute published a catalog of her collection. Edward Newell’s seal collection was published in the same series two years before.

The village of Delphi.

Baldwin Brett had an extensive knowledge of Islamic and modern numismatics, purchasing and donating a diverse selection of coins and medals to the society both during her appointment as Curator of the Society’s collection and throughout her time the Museum. Over the nearly half a century that Baldwin Brett was associated with the ANS she donated some five hundred coins to the collection including Greek and Roman examples, Islamic coins and glass weights, and modern European coins and medals. Baldwin Brett’s broad knowledge of numismatic studies is also demonstrated through her long tenure as the Chairman of the ANS publications committee from 1923 to 1946, and her continued work as a member of the committee up until the time of her death. Of her role as Chairman the ANS’ council noted that “her ability brought her appointment to the Committee on Publications where her insistence on high standards was especially potent” (American Numismatic Society Council Meeting Minutes: January 14, 1956).

Tiryns, 1900.

At the time when Baldwin Brett received her education most women had to choose between having a family and pursuing a career, and as a result many pioneering women scholars of the period never married. However, Baldwin Brett’s work was balanced with family life. Upon her return from Europe in 1914, she married George Monroe Brett, chairman of the Department of Accountancy at The City College of New York. He was also prominent for his work as Curator of the College’s collection. They had a daughter, Barbara, in 1925 who attended Wellesley College. Baldwin Brett divided her time between working in New York and living at a second home in Marblehead Massachusetts. Both her professional and private life included a great interest in travel, as she returned to Europe and the Mediterranean often throughout her lifetime. Baldwin Brett visited Greece again in 1924 in order to conduct numismatic research, and 1936 she embarked on a seven month trip with her husband and daughter during which they visited the leading archaeological sites of Egypt, Palestine, and Greece. This trip held particular significance, because it was an opportunity for her to revisit her professional beginnings with those who shared her private life (Richards, 1937: 13). Baldwin Brett studied Numismatics and Archaeology during a formative period for the field of classical studies in America. She also lived and worked in an age that did not encourage women to actively participate in scholarship. For these reasons her accomplishments both as an individual and a scholar are all the more impressive.


American Numismatic Society Council Meeting Minutes (January 14, 1956).

Agnes Baldwin. “The Cave at Vari: Coins,” American Journal of Archaeology, Second Series Vol. 7, (1903), pp. 335-337.

Dorothy Burr Thompson. (1971), “Edith Hayward Hall Dohan,” in T. James (ed.), Notable American Women 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary, Vol. I, (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1971).

Ruth Richards. Barnard College Alumnae Monthly (January, 1937), pp. 12-13. Theodore Leslie Shear. “Excavations at Corinth in 1925,” American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 29, No. 4. (Oct. – Dec., 1925), pp. 381-397.

See also: Correction