An Enduring Gift: The Story of David Maydole Matteson (1871–1949)

Isaac Sprik, April 2011

After earning a bachelor’s degree from University of California in 1892, David Maydole Matteson moved to Harvard University, intending to earn a second bachelor’s, as well as graduate degrees in history; however, while pursuing his master’s, a tragic bicycle accident left him deaf. No longer able to attend his doctoral classes, he took his master’s degree, and turned to the underappreciated field of indexing and library work.

He spent many years of his long life serving the historical community in the Harvard library and the Library of Congress, indexing works on many different subjects. Besides adding numerous indexes to the stacks, Matteson propelled a profession that was often overlooked to a place of scholarly importance in the library and historical communities. His major work, a labor of love, was an index of the 37 volumes of the Writings of George Washington for the American Historical Association. He quietly worked on this project for many years, but passed away before he could finish the index. To supplement his low income as an indexer (a profession not noted for its remuneration), he took up a career of ghostwriting secondary school history books. This turned out to be a profitable career, however, and he was able to accumulate a small fortune.

In the end, David Matteson proved not only to be a diligent indexer who elevated the profession and contributed to the historical profession; he turned out also to be one of the great, unsung patrons of history, for he bequeathed his entire fortune of more than $80,000 to the AHA, to be used for creating the David Maydole Matteson Fund to continue to support tools for researching and publishing of history. This fund was used for the first seven years to finish Matteson’s 37-volume index, and since then it has been used as part of the endowment fund of the AHA. This is a gift that continues to support the work of the AHA and thus of all historians.

—Adapted from the March 8, 2011, AHA Today blog post, “A Forgotten Patron of the AHA” by Isaac Sprik.