James Hampton Kirkland was born in Spartanburg, South Carolina, September 9, 1859, the youngest son of William Clark and Virginia Lawson (Galluchat) Kirkland, and a descendant of Scotch and French settlers. His father was a Methodist minister and a member of the South Carolina conference, and his mother was the daughter of the Reverend Joseph Galluchat, a well known French minister in Charleston, South Carolina. He received an A.B. in 1877 and A.M. in 1878 from Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C. In the succeeding five years, he taught Latin and Greek in Wofford College. In July 1883, Kirkland went to Germany to pursue his studies in classics. Two years later he received a Ph.D. in Comparative Philology at University of Leipzig. In 1886, after a year of academic study in Berlin, Rome, and Paris, Kirkland returned to America.
Upon his return home, he was appointed professor of Latin at Vanderbilt University, with the recommendations of his former professors at Wofford, Charles F. Smith and William M. Baskervill, both of whom studied at Leipzig and now were faculty members at Vanderbilt. Besides being an able teacher and researcher in classics, Kirkland played a lead role in a faculty-led movement of educational reform that resulted in higher entrance requirements, the reorganization of the four-year-curriculum, and a general raising of academic standards. He held the professorship until 1893, when at the age of thirty – three, he was elected second chancellor of Vanderbilt, succeeding Landon Cabell Garland.
During Chancellor Kirkland’s forty-four-year tenure (1893-1937), Vanderbilt witnessed a significant period of expansion. With his leadership, the educational reform for maintaining high academic standards, from entrance exams through college curriculum to graduate programs, was further developed, thus laying a solid foundation in academics for Vanderbilt and giving the institution an opportunity to play a leading role in the reform of southern higher education in the turn of the century. With Kirkland’s efforts, the Medical School of Vanderbilt received $1,000,000 from the Carnegie Foundation in 1913, and then over $20,000,000 in 1919-21 from the Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations, which made possible the recognition of the medical program at Vanderbilt as one of the best in the South. Also, all departments were brought into an organic relation with the central administration and located on the campus, and both the faculty and the student body increased. In addition, Chancellor Kirkland developed a program of co-operation with Peabody College by exchanging faculty members and sharing a joint library (also with Scarritt College).
One of the most significant events during the Kirkland administration was the Tennessee Supreme Court case versus the Bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (now the United Methodist Church) and the eventual separation of Vanderbilt University from the church in 1914. After that time the University was free to carry on its educational programs along independent lines.
Chancellor Kirkland’s activities were not limited to the Vanderbilt campus. He was the instrumental in founding and developing the Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools of the Southern States (ACSSS). In 1895 he called a first meeting for the Association in Atlanta and became the Secretary and Treasurer, a position he held for thirteen years. In 1912 and 1921, he was elected President. Later he was President emeritus and member ex officio of all committees for life. In addition, Kirkland was Chairman of the National Conference for Standards for Colleges and Secondary Schools from 1920 to 1923; a trustee of Carnegie Foundation from 1917-1937 and Chairman of the board from 1922 to 1924; a member of the Slater Board for the Promotion of Education Among Negroes, 1917-1937; President of the Religious Education Association of America, 1912, and the Association of American Colleges, 1925. In 1935, at the age of 76, Kirkland took the leading part in the establishment of the Southern University Conference, and was involved in this association until his death, which occurred at Magnetawan, Ontario, Canada, August 5, 1939.
In his personal life Kirkland enjoyed planting and hybridizing iris. He received an honorable mention from the American Iris Association and awards of merit from the Royal Horticultural Society and the National Iris Society of England. His iris Copper Luster was awarded the Dykes medal, an English award, in 1938 for the outstanding American contribution.
Kirkland was also an accomplished chess player.
In November 1895, he was married to Mary Henderson, daughter of Colonel William A. Henderson, a Confederate veteran from Knoxville, Tennessee, and a noted lawyer for the Southern Railway Company. They had one child, Elizabeth, wife of Benjamin D. Meritt, professor of Archaeology at Princeton University. Mary Henderson Kirkland died in 1953.