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CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY

The Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit


Mrs. Lewis and Mrs. Gibson


[Mrs. Lewis in doctoral gown] [Mrs. Gibson in doctoral gown]


Dr. Agnes Smith Lewis (PhD., LL.D., D.D., Litt.D.) (on the left) and Dr. Margaret Dunlop Gibson (LL.D., D.D., Litt.D.) (on the right) were born in the small Ayrshire town of Irvine in January 1843, the twin daughters of a solicitor. Receiving a legacy in excess of a quarter of a million pounds when their father died, Mrs. Lewis and Mrs. Gibson visited Greece and Egypt in 1866. After these adventures, life in rural Scotland was restricted and Agnes devoted herself to learning Greek, the first of many languages which she was to master.

It was only in 1890 that the twin sisters, now both bereaved, set off for St. Catherine's Monastery at Mt. Sinai, a journey of ten days by camel from Cairo. A letter from the leading scholar James Rendell Harris admitted them to the famous library. Their ability to read the manuscripts (they were accomplished scholars in Greek, Syriac, Arabic, and Hebrew) impressed the librarian. Their most outstanding discovery was a version of the Old Syriac Gospels (dated to the fifth century A.D.), which came to their attention when leaves were being used as butter dishes in the refectory.

More expeditions to the Middle East followed and even greater discoveries. In 1896, Mrs. Lewis and Mrs. Gibson showed some leaves of a Hebrew manuscript which they had purchased in the Middle East to Dr. Solomon Schechter, the Reader in Talmudic and Rabbinic literature at the University of Cambridge. He was amazed to read the text of the Hebrew version of the Apocryphal Book of Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus) which had previously only been known in Greek and Syriac translation. Solomon Schechter's efforts to find the source of this precious manuscript led him to Old Cairo, to the synagogue of Ben Ezra, and the renowned Genizah Collection.

The pioneering research and publications of Mrs. Lewis and Mrs. Gibson mark them a permanent place in scholarship that continues today. Their scholastic achievements were recognised by many universities, and they received doctorates from Halle (1899), St. Andrews (1901), Heidelberg (1904), and Trinity College Dublin (1911). Although they lived in Cambridge and contributed energetically to the academic debate, their scholarship did not receive any official recognition by the University of Cambridge.

Mrs. Lewis and Mrs. Gibson encouraged young scholars, and endowed Westminster College, which opened in 1899 as a training place for Presbyterian ministers. Mrs. Gibson died in January 1920, Mrs. Lewis in 1926. Their portraits, (shown at the top of this page) where they are shown robed in doctoral gowns, still hang in the Hall of Westminster College.

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ŠUniversity of Cambridge; last revised May 2002