Educator, author, community leader. Born in Laurens County on August 7, 1892, Elliott was the youngest of ten children of James Park Dillard and Elizabeth Irene Byrd. She attended Laurens County public schools, Presbyterian College, and George Peabody College in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1912 she received her bachelor’s degree from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia. Elliott served as principal of the high school in Cross Hill for two years before returning to Randolph-Macon as an instructor of English. After seven years, she assumed the principalship of a small grammar school in Columbia. During this time Elliott pursued her M.A. degree at the University of South Carolina (USC), which she received in 1921. Dissatisfied with her job, she became determined to receive a Ph.D. She began her doctoral studies in English at the University of North Carolina in 1923 and commenced work on a dissertation, which was later published as A History of Literature in South Carolina (1950). In 1924 Elliott became the first woman to receive a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina.
Elliott accepted an invitation to become the first dean of women at the University of South Carolina, an institution that had recently become fully coeducational. Beginning her work in the fall of 1924, she also served as a full professor until 1935, when ill health forced her retirement. During her years as dean, Elliott helped make smooth what might have been a bumpy process of coeducation. Early in her residence in Columbia, she met Charles Bell Elliott, a member of the USC Law School faculty. They were married on July 30, 1931.
Along with her marriage and work at USC, Elliott became involved in many civic, educational, and cultural organizations. Among these were the American Association of University Women, Phi Beta Kappa, and the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). The descendant of Revolutionary War heroes, Elliott established the USC chapter of the DAR and served as the South Carolina state organizing secretary.
With veterans flooding American colleges and universities after World War II, Elliott returned to teaching at the University of South Carolina, where she held the rank of associate professor from 1946 to 1964. She was active in organizing Great Books courses and also engaged in genealogical study. Continued interest in Laurens County led to Elliott’s coeditorship of South Carolina’s Distinguished Women of Laurens County: “. . . Most of Whom Were Redheaded” (1972).
Elliott showed how difficult it was for a woman of limited financial means to attain the education she desired and the circuitous route essential to achieving her dreams of becoming a scholar. She never forgot her good fortune or those who helped her. As a dean and professor, she attempted to grant similar opportunities to the young women who came under her tutelage. As testimony to her teaching skills, each year the University of South Carolina awards the Irene D. Elliott Award for Outstanding Teaching. Elliott died in Columbia on April 5, 1978, and was buried in the First Presbyterian Churchyard.
Tolbert, Marguerite, Irene Dillard Elliott, and Wil Lou Gray, eds. South Carolina’s Distinguished Women of Laurens County: “. . . Most of Whom Were Redheaded.” Columbia, S.C.: R. L. Bryan, 1972.