Historian Donald Cole reflects on his life, career, and experiences as a member of the Grant Study





Donald Cole, 87, has been answering questions as part of the Harvard Study on Adult Development since he was a sophomore in the early 1940s. [The landmark study tracked Harvard students throughout their lives.] A historian who’s written books on 19th-century American politics, Cole served in World War II and spent most of his career teaching at Phillips Exeter Academy. His next book, Vindicating Andrew Jackson: The 1828 Election and the Rise of the Two-Party System, is due out in September. Joshua Wolf Shenk talked to Cole and his wife, Susan Wilson (known as Tootie), at their home in Exeter, New Hampshire. Excerpts from their conversation:

Do you remember being selected for the Grant Study?

Yes, I do. I didn’t think it was a big deal at the time. I was going off to war soon. I think I was a sophomore at the time. I do remember talking to Dr. Heath. He told me about adaptation. He pointed out that a lot of people who are scholars, who you would think would never be able to turn a nut or bolt on a truck, found out they could do it pretty well in the war because they had to.

I got the impression that some people considered it an honor to be chosen. I didn’t think of it too much. I was chosen because I was healthy and doing pretty well in school. I remember the Rorschach tests. It was amusing.

The focus of the study shifted quite a lot over the years. Was that apparent to you?

I thought they were shifting with our age. The interest in psychology was apparent right from the start. I remember very interesting questions about the war. As the study went on, of course, they began to ask me about marriage, about life in the family, and growing old. I sort of wish now that I had kept a copy of my answers to all their questions. We got questions about once a year. It would have been fun to see how I answered but I never did. I just sent them back in.

Tootie: Quite a lot of the questions were easy to answer, but then they get down to questions about how you are feeling. That was harder. Especially for men who don’t usually talk about how they are feeling.

Do you think that being studied in this way has affected your life?

Yes, by asking me how I live with my wife, how I get along with my children, it has made me think more....


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