Macurdy was born in Robbinston, Maine, and was the daughter of Simon Angus Macurdy and Rebecca Thomson Macurdy.
She went to high school in Watertown, Massachusetts, before studying at Radcliffe College, where she gained highest second-year honors in 1887, and graduated in 1888.:200 Macurdy would become the first graduate from Radcliffe to gain a doctorate, and become a college professor.:201 At first she taught Greek and Latin at the Cambridge School for Girls, while continuing to teach graduate courses at Radcliffe, and in 1893 moved to Vassar College.
Macurdy was awarded a fellowship from the Woman's Education Association of Boston, which allowed her to study at the University of Berlin from 1899 to 1900, taking classes taught by Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff.:202 She gained her PhD from Columbia University in 1903, becoming the first American woman (and third woman) to have gained a PhD from Columbia.:202 Her dissertation was titled The Chronology of the Extant Plays of Euripides, and was longer than most dissertations in the subject at that time.:202–203 While studying, she had continued teaching at Vassar, commuting to and from Columbia, until the receipt of her PhD gained her a promotion, and she became an Associate Professor of Greek at Vassar.:203 In 1908 she became the first woman to teach in the academic program at Columbia University, taking up undergraduate and graduate Greek courses in Columbia's summer session.:111
During her early career, Macurdy cultivated a relationship through letters with Gilbert Murray, who supported and encouraged her work, particularly after they met in 1907.:204 It is clear that she originally patterned her work on Murray's,:118 but as her research progressed she began to work on etymology of names, mythic and religious origins, and ethnology, thus beginning to model herself more after the approach of Jane Harrison, herself a female pioneer of the time.:119 Her first book, Troy and Paeonia, was dedicated to Harrison, a dedication which Harrison received with great delight.:119
Conflict with Abby Leach
Macurdy's pioneering academic achievements did not have wholly positive results, as her increased success brought her into conflict with the scholar who had first hired her to Vassar, Abby Leach. In 1907, Macurdy discovered that Leach was attempting to have her dismissed from Vassar.:115 In 1907, Leach began to seek a faculty member to replace Macurdy, and to restrict the courses which she would be allowed to teach. In January 1908, Leach formally proposed Macurdy's dismissal to the Vassar president, James Monroe Taylor, claiming that she needed a younger more "adaptable" colleague for her work.:116 Leach also commented unfavourably on Macurdy's decision, previously encouraged by Leach herself, to study for her PhD while teaching at Vassar.:116 Before Leach's proposal could be acted upon, she publicly reassigned Macurdy's class in freshman Greek to a new instructor, and she continued to write letters to Taylor criticising Macurdy.:116 The trustees of the college rejected Leach's proposal, and unanimously reappointed Macurdy, instructing Leach to give her a reasonable share of the work in the department. Yet Taylor continued to receive letters from Leach, and a letter from graduate students telling him of incidents when Leach had vehemently criticised Macurdy and her work to the students in their classes, including criticising details of her thesis.:116–117
Leach's campaign continued for several years. She continued to remove courses from Macurdy, and to persuade students against courses which Macurdy was teaching, then claiming that Macurdy should be dismissed as she did not have sufficient courses to teach, or sufficient students.:117 Leach also continued her letter-writing, writing to alumnae asking them to criticize Macurdy, and writing further derogatory letters to the president of Columbia and professors of Greek who had taught her there.:117 When Henry Noble MacCracken took office as the new President of Vassar in 1915, Leach immediately presented her case for the dismissal of Macurdy to him.:117 However, MacCracken instead proposed the following year that Macurdy should be given a permanent post, and promoted to the rank of full professor, and the trustees agreed.:117 Despite the lack of support, Leach continued her campaign until her death in 1918. Hundreds of the letters sent as part of the conflict are now in the Vassar Archives, stored under the heading "The Leach-Macurdy Conflict".:116
Head of department and later career
In 1920, two years after Leach's death, Macurdy became chair of the department of Greek at Vassar, a post which she held until she retired in 1937. In her new position, she increased collaboration with the Latin faculty, mentored younger colleagues, increased enrolments, improved the strength of the courses offered by the faculty, and continued to publish widely.:206 She continued to be an effective teacher, lecturer, and international traveller, despite the fact that in 1919 she had begun to lose her hearing, a loss which then proceeded rapidly until she was almost entirely deaf by her mid-fifties.:206 After the loss of her hearing, Macurdy took to using an ear-trumpet, a detail remembered fondly by her students in later anecdotes.:206
In contrast with Abby Leach, at whose hands she had suffered so much difficulty, Macurdy worked hard to promote the careers and scholarship of other younger female colleagues.:211 She recognised the excellence of Lily Ross Taylor's scholarship, and helped foster her career even after she had left Vassar.:211 She interceded with President MacCracken on behalf of Elizabeth Hazelton Haight's delayed promotion to full professor, and asked the president of Mount Holyoke College to take care that Cornelia Coulter not 'overburden' herself with teaching, thus making it difficult for her to publish successfully.:211
In the later part of her career, partly due to the reassurance of her status as an established scholar, Macurdy turned to the study of ancient women - a topic not previously explored by female classicists, and by few male scholars.:125 In particular, she focused her work on ancient monarchies, and sought out the facts of royal women's roles, natures and characters, while attempting to cut through the prejudices and stereotypes about women which had made earlier treatments unsatisfactory.:125
Macurdy became the first woman to lecture publicly in Classics at King's College, Cambridge on May 25, 1925, after being invited by
J. A. K. Thompson.:194 As well as Macurdy being the first woman to participate in such a series, her lecture on "Great Macedonian Women" was an unusual topic for a university-sponsored, public lecture at the time.:126
Macurdy retired in 1937. In 1946 she was awarded the King's Medal for Service in the Cause of Freedom for her role in raising money for the British war relief during the Second World War. Her final book, The Quality of Mercy in Greek Literature was published in 1940, and examined the development of the 'humane virtues' in Greek thought. It is likely that her choice of topic was influenced by her horror at the events taking place in Europe in the late 1930s.:126 Macurdy died in 1946.