C. Dallett Hemphill, 56, of Erdenheim, an American history professor at Ursinus College for nearly three decades and a leading scholar on Philadelphia, died June 3 of cancer at Jefferson Hospital.
Dr. Hemphill’s academic specialty was the social history of the United States, from the colonial era into the 19th century. She wrote two books, both published by Oxford University Press: “Bowing to Necessities: A History of Manners in America, 1620-1860,“ and “Siblings: Brothers and Sisters in American History. “
Dr. Hemphill shared the preoccupations of her generation of historians with social history and women’s history. But her independent mind led her to a series of unusual research projects, which ranged from how the French government supplied wives for settlers in Louisiana, to the role of women in 18th century Quaker meetings, to the importance of sibling relationships in an era when parents often died young and the social safety net had not yet been woven.
As an undergraduate at Princeton and and piqued that a European history professor had given her a B+ after disagreeing with one of her papers, Dr. Hemphill arranged to spend her junior year in Paris, where she used the French National Archives to research French efforts to settle swampy, mosquito-infested Louisiana, long before it was sold to the United States in 1804.
The territory had little natural attraction for women, particularly, which limited its attraction for men. The French government responded by sending convicted prostitutes and mental patients to its colony. Dr. Hemphill described one case where a white woman was sent to the New World in her own cage, lowered into a ship’s hold for the voyage. When a sailor tried to assault her through the bars, the woman bit off one of his fingers and swallowed it.
Dr. Hemphill taught an array of American history courses at Ursinus, as well as a course on civic engagement based on Philadelphia government and politics. Instead of focusing on the city’s elected officials, she arranged for her students to interview people who dealt regularly with the city from other perspectives, such as neighborhood and civic activists, ward leaders and committee people, political consultants, newspaper reporters and City Hall lobbyists, among others.
In addition to her two books with Oxford, Dr. Hemphill had completed the manuscript for a third book, “Philadelphia Stories: Twelve People and their Places in America’s First City.” It combined mini-biographies of less-known figures of the Revolution and the new nation with an attentiveness to the places in the city where ordinary Americans struggled to make the vision of the Founding Fathers a living reality.
Dr. Hemphill was also a senior research associate at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She edited its professional journal, Early American Studies, and contributed frequently to other academic publications and projects, including the ongoing video series on Philadelphia produced by former mayoral candidate Sam Katz.
After Princeton, Dr. Hemphill received her master’s and doctoral degrees from Brandeis University.
Dr. Hemphill was raised in Chestnut Hill, one of eight children of the late Alexander Hemphill, the Philadelphia city controller from 1958 to 1967, and his wife Jean, who now lives in Oxford, Md. She attended Philadelphia public schools and Ravenhill Academy in East Falls, graduating from St. Andrews School in Middletown, Del., after Ravenhill closed.
In addition to her mother, she is survived by her husband, John Spencer Hill; two sons, Evan and Alexander; sisters Pricie Hanna, Elizabeth Burns, Jean Hemphill, Rebecca Firth, Louisa Zendt and Terry Hemphill, and a brother, Sander Hemphill.
A memorial service is planned for 11:30 a.m. Friday, July 10, at Bomberger Hall on the Ursinus campus, on East Main Street in Collegeville. Memorial donations may be made to Doctors Without Borders at firstname.lastname@example.org – WF