At the time of its founding in 1876, the Johns Hopkins University had no formal departments. German was grouped together with all other languages (English included), and the original intent was for romance languages to supplement classical studies. There was only one faculty member in German, Hermann Brandt, a graduate of Hamilton College, who held the rank of associate.

Aaron Marshall Elliott was named an associate in 1876 to teach romance languages and was promoted to full professor in 1892. He received his PhD from Harvard in 1867 and studied in Europe for eight years before returning to assume his position at Hopkins. By 1884, Elliott had established a doctoral program, which would train many prominent romance scholars for American universities. At this time, he also founded the Modern Language Association of America and its review, the Publication of the Modern Language Association (PMLA), which still plays an important part in literary studies.

By 1880, German had been separated from romance languages and grouped with Teutonic languages, which included Anglo-Saxon, Middle English, and Shakespearean English, as well as Old Norse and Icelandic. In 1882, Brandt resigned his post at Hopkins and was replaced by Henry Wood, a graduate of the University of Leipzig and originally an associate professor of English. One of Wood’s goals was to shift emphasis away from philological evaluation of texts to teaching students to read German at an acceptable level of comprehension. The separation of English and German in 1888 enabled Wood to concentrate exclusively on developing an improved German language instruction program.

In 1897, Edward Cooke Armstrong, a Hopkins PhD (French), succeeded Elliott as chair of romance languages. Armstrong taught at Hopkins from 1897 to 1917. Under Armstrong’s direction, the Romance Journal Club was founded, composed of a group of faculty and students who met weekly and reviewed foreign scientific literature. In 1919, Henry Carrington Lancaster, who received his PhD in French from Hopkins in 1907, was named professor and chair. He rebuilt the department while also reinforcing the traditional seminar style of education. Although courses were offered in Italian and Spanish, French remained the primary emphasis of the department.

In 1927, William Kurrelmeyer, an 1899 Hopkins PhD, became chair. The most conspicuous event of Kurrelmeyer’s term was the Second World War, during which all ties with German universities were cut. Kurrelmeyer resigned his post as chair in 1944 and was succeeded by Ernst Feise. Feise’s area of expertise was the metrical structure of both poetry and prose. During the Second World War, he was an outspoken critic of Hitler and, as early as 1937, wrote letters in which he warned of the menace the Nazi regime posed to European stability.

In the 1950s, the romance languages department benefited from the presence of émigré European scholars, such as Leo Spitzer, Georges Poulet (who succeeded Lancaster as chair in 1952), and Jean Starobinski. When Poulet returned to Europe, Nathan Edelman became chair. In 1957, Charles Singleton returned to the department after spending 10 years at Harvard. Singleton’s presence was to dominate the romance languages department for almost three decades, despite the fact that his primary appointment was in the Humanities Center, which he had founded. Singleton was known as one of the foremost scholars on Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, and his scholarship received numerous awards, including the Order of Commendation, the highest honor the Italian government can bestow on a non-Italian. Singleton was also instrumental in developing the Villa Spellman in Florence, Italy, as a study facility for Hopkins faculty and graduate students. Today, the Singleton Center for the Study of Pre-Modern Europe as well as the Singleton Fellowship for graduate students in Italian are a testament to his lasting influence.

In 1980, Lieselotte Kurth became chair of German. Kurth received her PhD from Hopkins in 1963. The arrival of Rainer Nägele, Werner Hamacher, and David Wellbery in the 1980s signified a major shift in the German department, which henceforth would emphasize aesthetics and the philosophical tradition in its analysis of German literature and culture. In the years since, the department has hosted many noted scholars as visiting professors, including Hans-Jost Frey, Hans-Joerg Rheinberger, Wolfram Groddeck, Gerhard Neumann, and Christoph Menke.

In 2006, the Department of German and the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures merged under the leadership of Professor Stephen Nichols to create its current configuration as the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures.

Today, the department continues the tradition of close ties with scholars and universities from other countries in Europe and Latin America. Graduate and undergraduate students regularly study in major universities and institutes abroad. Every year, students and faculty from partner universities abroad teach and study in the department, creating a dynamic and stimulating intellectual scene.

Excerpted and compiled from the Ferdinand Hamburger Archives of the Johns Hopkins University.