Humanitarian Work

Whittemore’s extensive travels brought him face-to-face with the grim reality of World War I, compelling him into humanitarian efforts—and, ultimately, to immerse himself in the East and its many wonders.


The War Begins, early 1910s-1914

While working with the Egypt Exploration Society (EES) in the early 1910s, Whittemore traveled extensively throughout Europe, witnessing firsthand the destruction and upheaval that followed the outbreak of World War I in July 1914. In Paris, he joined the Red Cross just months after the fighting began. Whittemore, distressed by the deplorable scene that surrounded him, wired home a pithy, but nonetheless powerful, account of conditions in French army hospitals: “Just returned from France for supplies. Acres of wounded. Unimaginable suffering. Operations without ether.”“War Surgeons Work Without Anesthetics: Thomas Whittemore of Boston Wires of Operations Without Ether,” Boston Journal 81 (November 5, 1914), 7. See also: “Acres of Wounded Men: Local Man Cables That Operations Are Performed Without Anesthetics,” Boston Daily Globe (November 5, 1914), 8. Appearing in The Boston Journal, Whittemore’s cablegram was for Americans an implicit call to action. This, however, was only the beginning for Whittemore himself; deeply impacted by all that he had seen, he had much bigger plans.

Letter introducing Thomas Whittemore to Prince Koudacheff of Russia, November 1915 Letter introducing Thomas Whittemore to Prince Koudacheff of Russia, November 1915

Bringing Relief in Europe, 1915-1918

Leaving his post with the EES after having overseen excavations at Balabish in the winter of 1915,“Notes and News,” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 1, 2 (April 1914), 145. For the Times article: Edouard Naville, “The Tomb of Osiris. Work of the Egypt Exploration Fund. An Unsuspected Building,” The Times (March 6, 1914), 4. Whittemore devoted himself entirely to relief work throughout the remainder of the war. Serving first with the Army Medical Service in France,“Notes and News,” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 2, 1 (January 1915), 39-40. he subsequently made his way to Bulgaria.“Notes and News,” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 3, 1 (January 1916), 58. In November 1915, Whittemore arrived in Russia and joined the Grand Duchess Tatiana Nikolaevna’s Petrograd- (modern-day St. Petersburg) based relief efforts, and he completed a tour of the nation before departing for the United States in February 1916. Holger Klein, “Tarifi Zor Bay Whittemore: Erken Dönem, 1871–1916 — The Elusive Mr. Whittemore: The Early Years 1871–1916,” in The Kariye Camii Reconsidered, ed. Holger Klein, Robert Ousterhout, and Brigitte Pitarakis (Istanbul, 2011), 478-479,

Once at home, Whittemore worked under the auspices of the newly-created Committee for the Relief of Refugees in Russia in order to generate publicity for the cause. He followed this brief domestic campaign with another voyage to Russia in 1917, arriving in volatile Petrograd in time for the February Revolution. Whittemore sailed to America late in the summer of the same year, after securing the necessary exit documentation from the Russian government.ibid However, his activities in the interim remain unclear. Upon landing in the United States, he resumed his drive to increase public awareness of the situation in Europe, this time extending his reach to audiences on both coasts. Employing the fundraising expertise he had gained during his time with the EES, Whittemore appealed to wealthy, civic-minded patrons for donations of money and supplies.“Thomas Whittemore Tells of Russian Relief Work,” Boston Daily Globe (October 12, 1917), 2. See also “Whittemore Believes Czar Deplored War – Lecturer Tells S. F. Center Russ Nobility Welcomed Revolution.” San Francisco Chronicle (October 21, 1917), B9. He set sail for Russia again in the summer of 1918 and managed to reach the tumult-plagued nation by the early fall. However, the collapse of the Tsarist autocracy forced Whittemore to return home once again, where he resumed his domestic lecture circuit and released a number of publications documenting the rapidly-evolving social and political climates in the East.Thomas Whittemore, trans., “The Russian,” The Atlantic Monthly 123, 1 (January 1919), 1-12. See also Mme. X, “Talks of Russia,” Chicago Daily Tribune (January 26, 1919), E5.

Group portrait with Thomas Whittemore (left) and George D. Pratt (right), Mount Athos, Greece, May 1923 Group portrait with Thomas Whittemore (left) and George D. Pratt (right), Mount Athos, Greece, May 1923

Relief Roundabouts in Turkey and Mount Athos, 1919-1923

Ever resourceful and possessed of an iron will, Whittemore coupled his fundraising efforts at home with relief expeditions to refugee enclaves in the East. Traveling through Turkey in an attempt to reach Petrograd in 1919, Whittemore began to focus his efforts on assisting the Russians seeking shelter in Turkish cities.Robert S. Nelson, Hagia Sophia, 1850-1950: Holy Wisdom Modern Monument (Chicago, 2004), 167. In particular, he devoted himself to securing educations for gifted refugee youths at European and Near Eastern universities. Whittemore passed several months at home before returning to Turkey in the spring of 1920.“Patriotic Ball and Supper Dance Given at Lakewood,” New York Tribune (February 29, 1920), C5. See also “Fortnightly Club Lecture Tonight for Russian Relief Fund,” Chicago Daily Tribune (March 2, 1920), 17. Then, using Constantinople (Istanbul) as a base of operations, he periodically made his way to Russia and Bulgaria in order to oversee relief projects there.Thomas Whittemore to Isabella Stewart Gardner, letter, July 6, 1920, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, MA. Quoted in Nelson 2004, p. 170.

As a supporter of scholastic opportunities for promising young refugees, Whittemore joined forces with the United States Bureau of Education in 1921. The government organization, which declared Whittemore a “Special Collaborator” and requested that he be issued a diplomatic passport, assigned him the task of studying educational systems in foreign nations. In May 1923, he accompanied scholars from The American School of Classical Studies at Athens on a cruise through the Greek isles at the invitation of his friend, George D. Pratt, a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History. For Whittemore, though, this was a business trip. On May 26th, he and Pratt traveled to several monasteries in Mount Athos, Greece, in order to deliver food and supplies to Russian and Bulgarian monks who were struggling financially after the Russian Revolution.Letter, June 8, 1923, Files of the Friendship Fund, Charles R. Crane Papers, Bakhmeteff Archive of Russian and East European History and Culture, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Butler Library, Columbia University, New York, NY. Quoted in Nelson 2004, p. 166.

Byzantine Ambitions Revisited, 1923-1927

In November 1923, Whittemore made his way back to Amarna, Egypt, in order to resume his work with the Egypt Exploration Society. Simultaneously decreasing his relief efforts in the East, his activities assumed an academic bent once more. Still, Whittemore’s humanitarian achievements were not easily forgotten. In May 1927, the French government admitted him to the Legion of Honor in recognition of his work in Russia.“Did Much Work for Russian Fugitives: Thomas Whittemore Given High Honor by France,” Boston Daily Globe (May 1, 1927), C8. Whittemore’s career as a relief worker shaped his legacy in a much deeper way. Visiting such marvels as the Hagia Sophia during his various trips to Turkey, he found himself held captive by the wonders of the East. It was likely this prolonged period of repeated immersion that reawakened the professor-archaeologist that had lain dormant within Whittemore throughout World War I—that helped to inspire the Byzantine Institute’s conception and its most famous undertaking: the restoration and conservation of the prized mosaics that line the interior of the Hagia Sophia.


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