Eleanor Shipley Duckett was born in Somerset, England, and was encouraged by her father to study the classics. She attended the University of London, from which she received her bachelor's and master's degrees, well as a diploma in pedagogy in 1905. She taught classic literature at a high school in Surrey, but then returned to her own studies at Girton College, Cambridge, the first women's college at Cambridge. In 1911, she went to the USA on a scholarship to Bryn Mawr College, where she earned her doctorate in 1914. She became an instructor at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio, teaching Latin and Greek until 1916, when she became a Latin instructor at Smith College. In 1928, she was named the John M. Greene Professor of Classical Languages and Literature, a position she held until her retirement in 1949. During the 1920s, her interests moved away from the classics toward the Middle Ages, and she became one of the 20th century's most respected medieval scholars. She began to write less academic, more general books, including The Gateway to the Middle Ages (1938), which established her reputation as a popular writer; Anglo-Saxon Saints and Scholars (1947); and Women and Their Letters in the Early Middle Ages (1965). She produced a total of 17 full-length books, and contributed many articles to scholarly journals and encyclopedias. She also worked as a reviewer for The New York Times Book Review. She traveled widely to lecture, research, and receive honors for her work. With her companion, fellow professor and novelist Mary Ellen Chase, she had a house on the Maine coast called Windswept, a name which Chase used for a best-selling novels.