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Prescott was from a prosperous, old New England family. He received three years of rigorous instruction in a preparatory school headed by the Jesuit John Gardiner, who infused in him a love of classical learning. In 1811 he entered Harvard, where his academic record was good but undistinguished; he had serious difficulties with mathematics, and in later life the prospect of appraising the mathematical achievements of the aboriginal Mexicans almost prevented him from completing his work. Near the end of his junior year, a crust of bread thrown during a melee in the student commons caused virtual blindness in his left eye; the weakness of his other eye, caused by infection, sometimes prevented him from carrying on any kind of literary work. Throughout his life, Prescott's vision seems to have fluctuated from good to total blindness, and he often resorted to the use of a noctograph, a writing grid with parallel wires that guided a stylus over a chemically treated surface. Substantial portions of all his books and correspondence were composed on this device. He died in 1859.
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