Irwin, Agnes (1841–1914)

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Irwin, Agnes (1841–1914)

American educator who was the first dean of Radcliffe College. Born in Washington, D.C., on December 30, 1841; died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on October 16, 1914; the oldest daughter and second of five children of William Wallace Irwin (a Whig lawyer and congressman from Pennsylvania) and Sophia Arabella Dallas (Bache) Irwin (the granddaughter of Sarah Bache ); attended private school in Washington; never married; no children.

The daughter of a congressional representative and the great-great-granddaughter of Benjamin Franklin and Deborah Read on her mother's side, Agnes Irwin grew up in a privileged home. A keenly intelligent youngster, her formal education was supplemented by frequent trips abroad and by her own voracious reading. In 1862, six years after her father's death, Irwin moved with her family to New York, where she took a job as a teacher in a private school. In 1869, she assumed the principalship of the Penn Square Seminary of Philadelphia, after its two principals drowned in a boating accident. She remained there for the next 25 years, earning a reputation as a hard taskmaster who maintained high educational standards. The school was renamed the Agnes Irwin School shortly after her appointment.

In 1894, Irwin was recommended for the post of dean of the newly chartered Radcliffe College, formerly the Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women, popularly known as the "Harvard Annex." With the endorsement of Harvard's president Charles Eliot and Elizabeth Cary Agassiz , the first president of the fledgling institution, Irwin accepted the position. Turning the Irwin School over to her younger sister, she spent the summer in England observing management techniques at Girton and Newnham (the women's colleges affiliated with Cambridge University) and returned in the fall to assume her new duties. Adopting the "quiet, unaggressive" approach of Agassiz, Irwin spent the early years of her tenure expanding the curriculum of the "sister" institution, which, by 1902, was offering a doctoral program. She raised money for a gymnasium, a library, and an administration building, and worked for the establishment of college-owned residences so as to increase the accessibility of the institution to women throughout the nation. Irwin also established the social policies at Radcliffe, which reflected her Victorian sensibilities and were referred to by a student at the time as "inhibition incarnate." Radcliffe women were not allowed to appear in nearby Harvard Square without hats and gloves, and were forbidden to enter Harvard Yard unless invited by a young man to attend a special function open to women, and then only with a chaperon. On a personal level, however, Irwin was less formidable; students who came to know her spoke of her warmth and sense of humor.

Irwin's relationship with Agassiz was cordial and easy, and as time went on the division of power between the two women grew fuzzy. In 1899, when Agassiz withdrew somewhat from the management of the college to serve as "honorary president," Irwin accepted more responsibilities, becoming, in effect, head of the institution. When the older woman retired in 1903, Irwin was surprised when the trustees bypassed her and selected LeBaron Russell Briggs, dean of the faculty at Harvard, to serve as the new president. Although the choice of Briggs cemented Radcliffe's tie with Harvard, Irwin was disappointed by the snub. Although she stayed on as dean at Radcliffe for another six years, she did not approach her work with the same enthusiasm. Much of her time during her final years at the college was devoted to the Woman's Education Association of Boston, of which she was president from 1901 to 1907.

Agnes Irwin left Radcliffe in 1909 and returned to Philadelphia. From 1911 to 1914, she served as the first president of the Head Mistresses' Association of Private Schools. She died of pneumonia in 1914, age 72.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1983.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts