Biographical / Historical
Canadian-born, with an Oxford degree in classics, “the Bott,” as he was apprehensively referred to by a generation of Lawrenceville boys, was maniacally committed to athletics and high scholarship. Mather Abbot took his Christian name from his mother’s ancestors, Cotton and Increase Mather. On his father’s side he was the scion of English clergy. His father, the Reverend John Abbot, was sent by the Church of
England to be the rector of St. Luke’s Cathedral in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He was born there in 1874.
Before coming to Lawrenceville, Dr. Abbott taught Latin at The Groton School and then Yale, where he also coached crew. One of his Groton students was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who arrived as a Third Former the same year Abbott joined the faculty and came to respect the even-handed way in which the young master dispensed justice: “Another thing we all realized was that he did not play favorites,” wrote the future president, “and during my four years with him at school I gained increasing respect for him, not only as an excellent teacher, but also as a fine man in the best sense of the word.”
Soon after taking over as Lawrenceville’s sixth Head Master, on November 17, 1919, Dr. Abbott launched a fervent crusade against slackness of all kinds. “The place was a kind of Augean stable, much in need of cleaning, and the Bott got right to it,” said John Langhorne ’24. Indeed, his first act upon arriving on the Lawrenceville campus was to banish a Hollywood film crew he found shooting there. He strengthened the School’s athletic program and oversaw the building of the Lower School, the John Dixon Library, the Fathers Building (Pop
Hall) and two new Circle Houses, Raymond and Dawes. But he did not confine his crusading to campus. His campaign against Prohibition made him serious enemies, including, rumor had it, Al Capone. He received many crank calls and angry letters but would not be deterred. He
explained his reasoning thus: “The [18th] amendment is causing young people to ‘drink’ because it is the ‘thing to do,’ the ‘sporting thing,’
etc. because old and young feel the same way about an amendment that never should have been passed.”
Dr. Abbott’s insistence on hard work and discipline was not always appreciated, even by hand-picked members of the faculty. The great playwright Thornton Wilder, who was hired in 1921 to teach French and serve in Davis House, did not get along with Dr. Abbott. The Head Master rode Wilder about his boys' grades and disciplinary infractions. Wilder, for his part, felt that Dr. Abbott was “brutal and impetuous.”
Wilder later revenged himself on the Head Master by satirizing him in his novel The Eighth Day. Dr. Abbott actually resigned in the winter of 1927 over a dispute with the trustees about who would manage the School doctor. Indeed, his retirement had been announced in The New York Times before the School’s trustees gathered to implore him to stay on, which he did.
He died on May 17, 1934, not in the hail of Tommy gun fire that many feared would be his fate, but of simple exhaustion, after yet another week of exhorting his boys on the playing fields and in the classroom. Dr. Abbott, his wife Elsie Twinings Abbott and their daughter Elizabeth are buried in The Old Cemetery in East Haven, Connecticut. His tombstone includes the prayer: “Well done thou good and faithful servant. Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.” Whatever people thought of him personally, no one questioned the Bott’s devotion to “his boys." They truly were his life.