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In Memoriam: William B. Todd (1919–2011)

By Richard Oram

William Todd and F. Warren Roberts discuss a rare book beneath a portrait of George Bernard Shaw, ca. 1961. Unidentified photographer.
William Todd and F. Warren Roberts discuss a rare book beneath a portrait of George Bernard Shaw, ca. 1961. Unidentified photographer.

Not everyone remembers that Harry Ransom was a fisher of minds as well as of rare books and manuscripts. One of his early catches was William B. Todd, an up-and-coming young bibliographer at Harvard’s Houghton Library who had done his graduate work at the University of Chicago. Todd had served with distinction during World War II, receiving two wounds during the Normandy Invasion. In the late 1950s, Ransom saw that Todd might become the bibliographic intelligence behind the Humanities Research Center, then just a vision.

Once in Austin, Bill Todd, who died this past weekend, settled into a comfortable berth in The University of Texas English Department and began exploring the treasures of the Rare Book Department. In partnership with the English scholar D. F. Foxon, he discovered that the turn-of-the-century forger Thomas J. Wise had spent many hours in the British Museum Library removing leaves from copies of seventeenth-century plays. Wise then proceeded to improve his own inferior copies of plays purchased for a shilling or two. He would then have them rebound and ship them off to Chicago, where they were snapped up by his hapless dupe, the financier John Henry Wrenn. Their ultimate destination was Austin once the University acquired the Wrenn Library in 1918. The Todd-Foxon discovery created quite a splash—so much so that the British Museum asked for its “used” leaves back (they were not successful).

Todd made many noteworthy scholarly discoveries and contributed in a variety of ways to the intellectual life of the Harry Ransom Center through his publications (nearly 300 on a dazzling variety of subjects), exhibitions, and advice on acquisitions. Perhaps his greatest contribution was his characteristically thorough and precise examination of the three available copies of the Gutenberg Bible in the annus mirabilis of 1977–78. He undertook this project with his longtime bibliographical partner and wife, Ann Bowden. Together they looked at every significant feature of the Bibles and concluded that the Pforzheimer copy was the one to bring to Austin.

The Todd-Bowden team went on to accomplish labors unthinkable by lesser mortals, such as the first comprehensive bibliographies of the German reprint house Tauchnitz and Sir Walter Scott. Endeavors on these scales were built on world travel, which they both loved, and book collecting (ditto). Their libraries now form part of the collections of the Ransom Center, Lehigh University (Todd’s alma mater), and the British Library. In between their travels and writing, the Todds attended almost every Longhorn football game and entertained extensively. As the comments make clear, the Todds were mentors to a couple of generations of bibliographers and rare book librarians, who will not soon forget them.

Comments

Ellen S. Dunlap
Reply

Bill and Ann were also great teachers and mentors. They believed in me before I even thought of believing much in myself. I have dearly valued their friendship from the earliest days of my career and take comfort in the thought that they are now reunited.

Ellen S. Dunlap
President, American Antiquarian Society
(@ UT Austin, 1970-1983)

Kevin Mac Donnell
Reply

Ann and Bill were the gold standard for bibliographic scholarship, and they inspired three generations of bibliographers to uphold those standards, to follow the evidence wherever it might lead. They did not suffer fools, but they loved books and book people, and were generous in sharing their expertise and insights. None of us could have asked for better mentors.

Kevin Mac Donnell
Mac Donnell Rare Books
(MLS, UT)

Sally Sparks Leach
Reply

Dr. Todd taught his bibliography class with a conspiratorial tone in his voice and a sly, knowing smile on his face. One felt in the presence of a great detective of books and those who owned or sold them. Though his course was an elective in Graduate Library School, it was the most informative and relative one I took. As colleagues in later years, he and Ann were always available students and staff alike. They were a great team.

Michael Winship
Reply

Bill was one of the great bibliographers of a generation of great bibliographers! His doctoral dissertation forced Bowers to add a footnote to his PRINCIPLES at the last minute, and Bill went on to write important pieces that range in scope from the Gutenberg Bible to 20th-c. editions of English and American authors published on the continent by Tauchnitz. This summer, I found myself handing out to students pages from his Scott bibliography.

When I started at UT in 1990, Bill and Ann were wonderful mentors and hosts, freely offering insight and encouragement, not to mention good cheer. I am most grateful for their friendship and support.

Lance Bertelsen
Reply

It should be said that Bill’s Bibliography of Edmund Burke is still bedrock. F.P. Lock’s recent two vol. biography of Burke uses throughout the abbreviated citation: Todd.

David Farmer
Reply

Opening an unfamiliar book for the first time would never be the same after studying with Bill Todd. We learned what secrets await within gatherings and bindings, and we entered the shadowy world of books altered without permission from their authors and their keepers. Bill’s meticulous scholarship led to a world at the very heart of the transmission of knowledge on the printed page. After his courses at UT-Austin I couldn’t imagine a career that would not lead me through libraries dedicated to rare books and manuscripts. That was the path, and Bill’s teaching, support, and friendship showed the way.

David Farmer
(Retired director, DeGolyer Library)

Carole Cable
Reply

Yes – to echo Sally Leach – in Dr. Todd’s class your felt you were in the presence of a great detective. His bibliography class was the most relevant course I took for a master’s in what they called “library science” in the 1960s. His lectures were like something out of a mystery novel and you held your breath ’til the end of the class.

Carole Cable
Reply

Yes – to echo Sally Leach – in Dr. Todd’s class your felt you were in the presence of a great detective. His bibliography class was the most relevant course I took for a master’s in what they called “library science” in the 1960s. His lectures were like something out of a mystery novel and you held your breath ’til the end of each class.

Deborah Todd
Reply

Your descriptions and comments about my father are much appreciated.

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