Obituary: Penelope Biggs, classics scholar and benefactor, 85

Penelope Biggs visits the Department of Classics in 2017 with her husband, John Biggs. (Photo: James Byard/Washington University)

Penelope Parkman Biggs, a graduate and longtime benefactor of the Department of Classics in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, died under hospice care Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022, after a long illness. She was 85.

Born in 1937, Biggs was raised in Boston, except for four nonconsecutive years spent in Europe, as the family accompanied her father, in the wake of World War II, on a series of military and governmental assignments. As an undergraduate, she majored in classics at Radcliffe College (which shared classes and later merged with Harvard University) and nurtured a particular fondness for Cicero.

“I loved unraveling those long, winding sentences,” she told Washington Magazine in 2018, “and then pulling them back together again.”

Biggs (Photo courtesy of the Biggs family)

Penelope met John Biggs, her husband of 63 years, thanks to a Latin class. As a Harvard junior, John was standing in a department hallway, debating his roommate about which of two courses on Roman poet Catullus to take: one taught by famed scholar Cedric Whitman or one taught by famed scholar Philip Levine.

“But then Penelope walked in to speak with (Whitman),” John remembered. “And I thought, ‘OK. That’s decisive.’”

Penelope Biggs graduated from Harvard summa cum laude in 1959. In a later course with Professor Whitman, she wrote a paper on the disease theme in Sophocles. That paper was published in the journal Classical Philology and has been widely cited since then.

She and John married soon after and moved to St. Louis, where John had been raised, and where Penelope would earn both a master’s in classics (1968) and a doctorate in comparative literature (1974) from Washington University.

As a faculty member at Lindenwood College, Penelope Biggs earned tenure and published several articles on British 18th century literature. She later taught advanced Latin courses at Mary Institute (now Mary Institute-Country Day School) and helped found the New City School, from which her two children and four grandchildren all would graduate.

In 1990, Penelope and John Biggs established the Biggs Family Residency in Classics at WashU. The annual event includes a week of formal lectures and presentations by some of the field’s most prominent scholars, as well as informal interactions with students and faculty. In 2013, the couple established the John and Penelope Biggs Distinguished Professorship of Classics, currently held by Timothy Moore. In 2009, they received WashU’s Robert S. Brookings Award. In 2007, David Levine was installed as the inaugural John H. Biggs Distinguished Professor of Economics, a professorship currently held by George-Levi Gayle.

In addition to her husband, Penelope Biggs is survived by her son, Henry, as well as four grandsons: Jack, Alex, Charles and Thomas. A daughter, Andrea, died in 1980.

Memorial donations are suggested to the Saint Louis Zoo and the WashU Department of Classics. To leave a remembrance, visit

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