Mary Lyon Biography, Death, Mount Holyoke, Religion and Legacy

Mary Lyon Biography

Mary Lyon (Mary Mason Lyon) was an American pioneer in women’s education. She founded the Norton, Massachusetts Wheaton Female Seminary (now Wheaton College) in 1834. She then set up Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College) in South Hadley, Massachusetts in 1837 and served for 12 years as her first president (or “principal”). The vision of Lyon combined intellectual challenge with moral purpose. She appreciated socio-economic diversity and sought to make the seminar affordable by modest means to students.

Mary Lyon Age

Lyon was born on February 28, 1797, in near Buckland, Massachusetts. She died on March 5, 1849 (aged 52) in South Hadley, Massachusetts.

Mary Lyon Early life and Education

Buckland, Massachusetts, Lyon’s daughter of a farming family had a difficult childhood. When she was five years old, her father died and the whole family pitched in to help run the farm. When her mother remarried and moved away, Lyon was thirteen; she stayed in Buckland to keep her brother Aaron’s house, who took over the farm. She attended intermittently various district schools and also began teaching in them in 1814. The modest beginnings of Lyon fostered her lifelong commitment to extend educational opportunities to middle-class and poor girls.

Mary Lyon Photo

Finally, Lyon was able to attend two secondary schools, the Ashfield Sanderson Academy and the East Massachusetts Byfield Seminary. The headmaster, Rev. Joseph Emerson, and his assistant, Zilpah Polly Grant, friended her at Byfield. She also soaked the ethos of rigorous academic education infused with Christian commitment by Byfield. Lyon then taught at several academies, including Sanderson, Buckland’s own small school, Adams Female Academy (run by Grant), and the Ipswich Female Seminary (also run by Grant). The attendance of Lyon at Amos Eaton’s then novel, popular, lectures in laboratory botany influenced her involvement in the movement of women seminaries.

In 1834, Laban Wheaton and his daughter-in-law, Eliza Baylies Chapin Wheaton, called on Mary Lyon to help set up the Wheaton Female Seminary in Norton, Massachusetts. Miss Lyon created the first curriculum with the objective of being equal in quality to that of the colleges of men. The first principal, Eunice Caldwell, was also provided by her. On April 22, 1835, with 50 students and three teachers, the Wheaton Female Seminary opened. Mary Lyon and Eunice Caldwell left Wheaton to open the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary together with eight Wheaton students.

Mary Lyon

Mount Holyoke

During these early years, Lyon gradually developed its vision for the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, which in many respects would resemble Grant’s schools but, Lyon hoped, would draw its students from a broader socio-economic range. The college was unique in being founded by humble-minded people and serving their daughters rather than the rich’s children. She was particularly influenced by Reverend Joseph Emerson, whose Female Education Discourse (1822) advocated that women should be trained as teachers instead of “pleasing the other sex.”

Mount Holyoke opened in 1837: the seminary was ready for “the reception of scholars on November 8, 1837.” Lyon sought to maintain high academic standards: she set rigorous entrance examinations and admitted “young women of an adult age and mature character.”In line with her social vision, she limited the tuition to $60/year, about one-third the tuition that Grant charged at Ipswich Female Seminary, which was central to her mission of “appeal[ing] to the intelligence of all classes.”

Lyon, an early believer in the importance of daily exercise for women, required her students to walk one mile (1.6 km) after breakfast. During the cold and snowy winters of New England, she reduced the requirement to 45 minutes. Calisthenics, a form of exercise, was taught by teachers in unheated halls until a gymnasium storage area was cleared.

Lyon required students to perform domestic tasks— an early version of work/study — to keep costs low. Preparing meals and washing floors and windows included these tasks. He was tasked with cleaning knives by Emily Dickinson, who attended the seminary in 1847. Although the policies of Lyon were sometimes controversial, the seminar quickly attracted its 200-member target student body.

Lyon anticipated a change in the role of women and equipped her pupils with an education that was comprehensive, rigorous, and innovative, with particular emphasis on the sciences. She required:

seven courses in the sciences and mathematics for graduation, a requirement unheard of at other female seminaries. She introduced women to “a new and unusual way” to learn science—laboratory experiments which they performed themselves. She organized field trips on which students collected rocks, plants, and specimens for lab work, and inspected geological formations and recently discovered dinosaur tracks.


Conforti (1993) examines Lyon’s central religious importance. Under the influence of her teacher Reverend Joseph Emerson, she was raised a Baptist but converted to a Congregationalist. Lyon preached revivals at Mount Holyoke, spoke elsewhere, and was a member of New England’s New Divinity clergy fellowship, although not a minister. She played a major role in reviving Jonathan Edwards’s thinking, whose works were then read more often than in his day. Her ideas of self-restraint, self-denial, and disinterested benevolence attracted her.

Mary Lyon Death

Lyon died of erysipelas (possibly contracted from an ill student in her care) on March 5, 1849. Lyon was buried on the Mount Holyoke College campus, in front of Porter Hall and behind the Amphitheatre. Her burial site is marked with a granite marker surrounded by an iron fence.

Mary Lyon Legacy

Many buildings, including Mary Lyon Hall at Mount Holyoke College, have been named in her honor. Built in 1897, the hall houses college offices, classrooms and a chapel on the site of the former Seminary Building. The Wheaton Female Seminary’s main classroom building, originally known as the New Seminary Hall, was renamed Mary Lyon Hall in 1910 and still features prominently on Wheaton College campus. You can also find dormitories named after Mary Lyon at Miami University, New Hampshire Plymouth State University, Swarthmore College, and Massachusetts University Amherst. Named after her is Mary Lyon Elementary School in Tacoma, Washington.

After Mount Holyoke and Mary Lyon’s work led Ann Dudin Brown to found Westfield College in London, Vassar College, Wellesley College and the former Western College for Women were patterned. Oklahoma’s Cherokee Female Seminary (now Northeastern State University) acquired from Mount Holyoke its “first female seminary faculty,[ and] used the Massachusetts school as a pattern for the institution they set up.”

Lyon was inducted into the Bronx, New York, Great Americans ‘ Hall of Fame in 1905. She was inducted into the Seneca Falls, New York, National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993. The U.S. Postal Service honored her with a postage stamp of the 2 Great Americans series.