Mead, Elizabeth Storrs (1832–1917)

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Mead, Elizabeth Storrs (1832–1917)

American educator who was the first president of Mt. Holyoke College . Born Elizabeth Storrs Billings on May 21, 1832, in Conway, Massachusetts; died on March 25, 1917, in Coconut Grove, Florida; daughter of Charles Eugene Billings and Sally Williston (Storrs) Billings; attended Ipswich Female Seminary; married Hiram Mead (a minister and professor), on August 5, 1858 (died 1881); children: Alice Edwards Mead ; George Herbert Mead.

Moved to New York (1837); ran a girls' school in Massachusetts (c. 1852); moved to Ohio (1869); named president of newly created Mt. Holyoke College (1890); retired (1901).

Elizabeth Storrs Mead was the first president of Mt. Holyoke College, one of New England's "Seven Sisters" string of women's colleges established in the 19th century to provide a solid liberal arts education for American women. She is credited with laying the foundation upon which much of Mt. Holyoke's modern reputation as a prestigious educational institution rests. Born in 1832 into an old New England family, Mead and her twin sister Harriet Billings were the last of 11 Billings children. Her father was a colonel who sat on the Massachusetts General Court, and her mother was related to key leaders of the New England Congregationalist faith. The family moved to Trenton, New York, in 1837, and then to Andover, Massachusetts. Elizabeth Mead was educated at the Ipswich Female Seminary and taught at Northampton High School for a year before becoming co-director, with her eldest sister Jerusha Roberts , of a school for girls in Andover. She left this line of work when she married Hiram Mead, a minister and professor, in 1858.

With her husband, Elizabeth Mead relocated to South Hadley, Massachusetts, where Hiram sat on the board of Mt. Holyoke Seminary. From there, they moved to Oberlin College in Ohio for several years, where Elizabeth taught part time. Widowed in 1881, she returned with her two children to Andover around 1883 and served as assistant principal of the Abbott Academy there. It was this combination of teaching and administrative experience which led to her selection as the first president of Mt. Holyoke Seminary and College. The school had been founded by Mary Lyon as Mt. Holyoke Seminary in 1837, and was one of the first educational institutions in America open to women of all economic means. In 1890 it was chartered as a college, with authority to grant degrees, and renamed Mt. Holyoke Seminary and College. Mead was chosen that year as president of the institution as much for her background in education as for her sophistication and people skills. She quickly established herself as an ally of the college faculty—revoking the rule, for instance, that required teachers to share in housekeeping chores. She also raised salaries, revamped the students' social code to reflect greater trust in them, and created a music department and sports teams. In 1893, after receiving a solely collegiate charter, the school stopped offering its seminary course and became Mt. Holyoke College.

Mead and her plans for the school suffered a great setback when the main building of Mt. Holyoke was destroyed by fire in 1896, but she began a fund-raising campaign immediately and used the opportunity to create a better campus with smaller, "cottage-plan" dormitories. She also implemented other progressive actions that brought women's higher education on par with men's during this era, such as creating a gymnasium facility, a student government, the establishment of professor chairs at the college, and a variety of degree programs. During Mead's decade as president, Mt. Holyoke's student body increased from 272 to 600. She was succeeded by Mary E. Woolley upon her retirement in 1901. Mead lived her remaining years in Oberlin; she died in Coconut Grove, Florida, in 1917.


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

Woman: Her Position, Influence, and Achievement Throughout the Civilized World. Springfield, MA: King-Richardson Co., 1900.

Carol Brennan , Grosse Pointe, Michigan