This free lecture series brings renowned biographers, a number of them Pulitzer Prize winners, to the Mary Washington campus to explore the diverse lives and achievements of remarkable people. The subjects aren’t necessarily upstanding role models, but all are great in their influence, actions, or ideas. Since 2004, the series has investigated the lives of more than 150 people and a few non-human subjects including the racehorse Secretariat and the fictional Frankenstein, James Bond, Harry Potter, and Sherlock Holmes.
Lectures are held at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, January through April, in George Washington Hall’s Dodd Auditorium. They include question-and-answer sessions and book-signings.
The Chappell Lecture series began in 2004 as an academic course titled “Great Lives: Biographical Approaches to History.” Drawing on a model employed periodically by the History Department since the mid-1970s, and consistent with the University’s commitment to public service, certain lectures were opened to the public free of charge. The response was extraordinary—so great, in fact, that the program had to be moved from its original 200-seat Monroe Hall venue to 1200-seat Dodd Auditorium, the largest lecture facility on the Fredericksburg campus.
Soon after it began, Great Lives received a major boost as a result of a significant endowment from John Chappell of Philadelphia. That gift, subsequently augmented by Mr. Chappell’s continuing generosity, has made it possible for the program to attract speakers of prominence from throughout the country and abroad, creating an unprecedented intellectual opportunity both for UMW students and area residents alike.
The innovative approach of Great Lives is unusual, perhaps unique, in academia. According to James McGrath Morris, President of Biographers International Organization (and a 2011 Great Lives speaker on Joseph Pulitzer), “Quite simply, there is no other program comparable to it in the country. The University of Mary Washington is gaining widespread recognition for this truly remarkable achievement.”
Community support has been extraordinary, with audiences in recent years averaging around 500 and occasionally surpassing 1000. A number of local organizations and corporations have collaborated with Great Lives in sponsoring lectures. In addition, individual donations have become an important ancillary resource in funding the series.