Mary Lyon Biography

Mary Mason Lyon was an American pioneer in women's education during the 19th century. This biography profiles her childhood, life, works, achievements and timeline.

Quick Facts

Birthday: February 28, 1797

Nationality: American

Famous: Humanitarian Educators

Died At Age: 52

Sun Sign: Pisces

Also Known As: Mary Mason Lyon

Born in: Buckland

Famous as: Pioneer in Women's Education

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Died on: March 5, 1849

place of death: South Hadley

U.S. State: Massachusetts

Founder/Co-Founder: Wheaton College, Mount Holyoke College

More Facts

education: Amherst Academy

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Mary Lyon was an American education activist who is remembered for her commitment of providing affordable higher and better education for woman. She fully understood the socio-economic disparity in society and took initiatives to help less privileged students join seminary. In Massachusetts she set up two seminaries, the ‘Wheaton Female Seminary’ at Norton and the ‘Mount Holyoke Female Seminary’ at South Hadley. Mary Lyon was the first principal of the ‘Mount Holyoke Female Seminary’ and remained in the post for twelve years. The successful progress of ‘Mount Holyoke Female Seminary’ opened new vistas in the field of women’s education. She proved that a seminary for women can sustain financially and that women are equally capable of higher education. Her vision and philosophy for advancement and easy access of higher education for woman was taken forward by not only her students but by many others across the globe. She was a source of inspiration for many who established colleges for women including ‘Smith College’, ‘Mills College’ and ‘Wellesley College’.

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Childhood & Early Life
  • Mary Mason Lyon was born to Aaron Lyon and Jemima Lyon in the hilly town of Buckland in western Massachusetts on 28th February 1797. Her father Aaron died when Mary was five years old.
  • As a child she learned many skills like cooking, baking, sewing, preserving consumables of family garden, churning butter, jam making, cheese and candle making and helped her mother in these chores.
  • She received elementary education in the village school and when it shifted, she had to live with her extended family or with locals during the school terms and paid for her boarding doing various chores.
  • At 13, when her mother left the house and re-married, she supported her brother, who looked after the 100 acre family farm. He paid her one silver dollar as weekly wage.
  • She studied in different district schools till the age of 13 and thereafter she started imparting education in those schools from 1814.
  • In 1817 she studied in Ashfield based ‘Sanderson Academy’ where her affinity towards science developed. After 1817 she simultaneously studied and taught. She continuously juggled between teaching and attending lectures. She used to weave blankets to trade them to meet education and boarding costs.
  • Apart from ‘Sanderson Academy’, she also attended ‘Amherst Academy’ and ‘Byfield Female Seminary’ in Massachusetts.
  • While she was brought up as a Baptist, she was influenced by Reverend Joseph Emerson, her teacher and later converted to Congregationalist.
  • From 1814 onwards she started imparting education in schools she had studied. The schools she worked included her own school ‘Sanderson’ in Buckland and two schools run by Grant namely the ‘Adams Female Academy’ and the ‘Ipswich Female Seminary’.
  • In 1833, she surveyed different schools outside New England with the vision of setting up an affordable school of higher education for women. To achieve an endowment of $30,000, for three years she raised funds by door-to-door collection. In South Hadley, $8,000 was donated by the male town officials.
  • In 1834, in Norton, Massachusetts, she assisted Laban Wheaton and Eliza Baylies Chapin Wheaton (Laban’s daughter-in-law) on their call to establish the ‘Wheaton Female Seminary’ now known as ‘Wheaton College’. She formed the first course of study aiming it to be at par with curriculum of men’s colleges.
  • The ‘Wheaton Female Seminary’ started with fifty students on April 22, 1835 while the number of teachers was three. Eunice Caldwell, the first principal of the college was chosen by Mary Lyon. Later Eunice Caldwell left with Lyon and eight students of the college to establish the ‘Mount Holyoke Female Seminary’.
  • ‘The Mount Holyoke Female Seminary’ was formally started by her in 1836 with the vision to provide higher education to women from diverse economic backgrounds specially the middle class and the less privileged ones. It was opened in September 1837. The school started with 80 students, but the number kept increasing. In 1895, it became ‘Mount Holyoke College’.
  • She became the first principal of ‘The Mount Holyoke Female Seminary’ and remained so for 12 years. She made the curriculum of the school more challenging compared to other women’s colleges. The entrance exam was conducted maintaining high academic standards.
  • She used to take chemistry classes in ‘The Mount Holyoke Female Seminary’ and made sure that all students study mathematics and science. Field trips and lectures of renowned scientists were conducted for the students. Tuition fee was limited to $60 a year to attract students from all economic backgrounds. She initiated the practice of students taking active part in different chores associated with the school to lower the tuition fees.
  • Ideals of self-denial and self-restraint appealed to her. She became a fellow member of the clergy of ‘New England’s New Divinity. She used to preach revivals at ‘The Mount Holyoke Female Seminary’ and also played an important role in reviving ideals of Jonathan Edwards. ‘A Missionary Offering’ was published by her in 1843.
Major Works
  • ‘The Mount Holyoke Female Seminary’ established by Mary Lyon remains an inspiration in the field of higher education for women. Mary Lyon encouraged others by her tireless effort and dedication to make higher education affordable to the underprivileged women. Following her footsteps, many such schools were later established.
Personal Life & Legacy
  • Mary Lyon died at the age of 52 on 5th March 1849 at her apartment at Mount Holyoke in South Hadley, Massachusetts, due to erysipelas.

See the events in life of Mary Lyon in Chronological Order

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- Mary Lyon Biography
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Last Updated
- November 13, 2017
Mary Lyon

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