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Cumnock, Robert McLean, 1840-1928



  • Existence: 1840 - 1928


Robert McLean Cumnock was born in Scotland in 1840 to a large Presbyterian family. He began teaching elocution at Northwestern University in 1868. Cumnock founded Northwestern University's School of Oratory in 1878. He died in 1928.

As a small boy in 1842, Cumnock moved with his family to America, eventually settling in Mason, New Hampshire, by 1852. Cumnock paid his own way through Wilbraham Academy, a private secondary school, because his family could not afford it. While he attended, he was older than the other students. In 1860, when he was almost twenty-one and still attending Wilbraham, he joined the army to fight in the Civil War. He fought for three months, and then signed up again, staying for another full year, before returning to Wilbraham. He graduated in 1864, intending to go on to Yale, but instead he went to Wesleyan in Middletown, Connecticut, partly because of its religious affiliation.

At the encouragement of his friend, Revered Raymond, who worked at the Garrett Biblical Institute in Evanston, Cumnock began teaching Elocution at Northwestern University in 1868 after he finished his own schooling. Cumnock taught Elocution from 1868 to 1873, and Rhetoric and Elocution from 1873 to 1913. His students and fellow teachers held him in high esteem, feeling that no one was more passionate about the importance of speech education than he was. In 1878, Cumnock created a two-year diploma program when he formed the Cumnock School of Oratory, with the first class graduating with the degree in 1881. In 1894, Northwestern University and Cumnock signed a contract allowing Cumnock to have a building constructed to house the School of Oratory. An important donation to the new building came from Chicago meat-packer Gustavus Swift, whose daughter had attended Northwestern before her untimely death. Annie May Swift Hall, designed by architect Charles R. Ayers, opened in 1895, and for many years the catalog described it as the only structure specifically built for education in speech.

Cumnock headed the School of Oratory until he retired in 1913. In 1910, the school honored Cumnock by hanging his portrait in Annie May Swift Hall, and Northwestern University awarded him the degree of Doctor of Letters in 1919. Cumnock died on November 28, 1928, and a memorial service was held for him in Annie May Swift Hall on December 5, 1928.

The School of Oratory was renamed School of Speech in 1921, and became the School of Communication in 2002. Over the years, the School that Cumnock founded has produced many notable alumni in fields ranging from acting to audiology.

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

Robert M. Cumnock (1848-1928) Biographical Materials

Identifier: 20/1/1

This series includes materials from Robert M. Cumnock's life at Northwestern and materials related to public interest in Cumnock after his death in 1928. The series includes biographical materials, correspondence, clippings, programs from speaking engagements, contracts, research correspondence and posthumous documents.

Dates: 1877-1975