Phelps, Almira Lincoln (1793–1884)

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Phelps, Almira Lincoln (1793–1884)

American educator and textbook writer . Name variations: Alma Hart; Almira Hart Lincoln. Born Almira Hart on July 15, 1793, in Berlin, Connecticut; died on July 15, 1884, in Baltimore, Maryland; daughter of Samuel Hart and Lydia (Hinsdale) Hart; sister of Emma Hart Willard (1787–1870); educated at home, at Nancy Hinsdale's academy for girls, at an academy in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and at the Berlin Academy; married Simeon Lincoln (a newspaper editor), on October 4, 1817 (died 1823); married John Phelps (an attorney), on August 17, 1831 (died 1849); children: (first marriage) James (died in infancy);Emma Lincoln ; Jane Lincoln (d. 1856); (second marriage) Charles Phelps; Almira Phelps; and six stepchildren.

Headed several boarding schools and seminaries for girls, most notably Patapsco Female Institute in Maryland (1841–56); wrote a number of science textbooks which became standard works in the schools of her day.

Selected writings:

Familiar Lectures in Botany (1829); Dictionary of Chemistry (1830); Lectures to Young Ladies (1833); Caroline Westerley (1833); Botany for Beginners (1833); Chemistry for Beginners (1834); Geology for Beginners (1834); Natural Philosophy for Beginners (1835); Lectures on Chemistry (1837); Hours with My Pupils (1859).

Almira Lincoln Phelps was born in 1793, the daughter of Samuel and Lydia Hinsdale Hart . Growing up in a large, politically liberal family on a farm in Connecticut, Phelps was exposed from an early age to the important issues of her day. She absorbed much from family discussions and informal family education, and was also educated in private academies. Phelps taught for a year at the Berlin Academy, and was directing her own academy in Sandy Hill at the time of her marriage in 1817 to Simeon Lincoln, the editor of the Connecticut Mirror in Hartford.

Phelps' sister Emma Hart Willard was renowned as an educator who advocated higher education for women. In an era when women's education was generally confined to domestic arts and artistic accomplishments, Willard's Troy Female Seminary was one of the first institutions for women to emphasize academic subjects. After the death of Simeon Lincoln in 1823, which left Phelps with two small children to raise, she joined the staff of her sister's school, serving for a time as principal in her sister's absence, and became interested in natural sciences. With the encouragement of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute professor Amos Eaton, she published her first science textbook aimed at women, Familiar Lectures on Botany, in 1829. The most successful of a series of textbooks she would write, it had sold 275,000 copies in 9 editions by 1872.

In Familiar Lectures, Phelps attempted to place the subject of botany within the context of contemporary society, using examples from history and from poetry, as well as folklore and moral observations, alongside scientific study. She tried, for example, to show that botany had Biblical roots and was related to women's roles by discussing how both Adam and Eve had a role in the newly created world. In this Phelps was following the tenets of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, who had advocated an alternative to the dry, technical approach taken by most authors of science textbooks of the time. Pestalozzi believed in beginning with a concrete object, like a flower, and observing how that object's parts determined its inclusion in a classification system. By adopting this method, Phelps was defying common beliefs that women were incapable of comprehending such things as scientific methods, ancient languages, and higher mathematics. According to Vera Norwood , women educated by such leaders as Phelps and her sister Emma Willard "spread out across the country, carrying with them the seeds of a new way for the educated woman to spend her time—in pursuit of a better knowledge of her natural environment."

Almira married again in 1831, to John Phelps, a widowed attorney with six children, two of whom were still living at home. She had two more children with her husband, bringing the number of children in the household to six, and during the 1830s remained busy caring for her family at their home in Guilford, Vermont. She continued to write, however, producing a novel, Caroline Westerley (1833), in addition to her academic works, which included Botany for Beginners (1833), Geology for Beginners (1834), Chemistry for Beginners (1834), and Natural Philosophy for Beginners (1836). She also briefly became principal of a seminary for girls in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and of another seminary in Rahway, New Jersey. In 1841, she became principal of Patapsco Female Institute at Ellicott's Mills, Maryland, and her husband became the school's business manager. Phelps worked to improve the curriculum, especially in the sciences, increased the school's academic standards, and advanced its reputation as a teacher training institution.

Despite her belief in women's intellectual abilities, Phelps was actually quite conservative in her social views. She opposed suffrage for women and was active in the Woman's Anti-Suffrage Association, believing (as did many prominent women of the time) that politics was an unsuitable venue for women. Following the tenets of her day, Phelps felt that higher education for women should train them primarily for their expected roles as wives and mothers; yet she emphasized that her brand of education was designed to take "away from females their helplessness." She claimed that the study of botany "seems peculiarly adapted to females; the objects of its investigation are beautiful and delicate"; yet she also encouraged women to improve their physical health through fresh air and exercise.

Phelps' husband died in 1849, and her daughter Jane was killed in a train accident in 1856. After her daughter's death, she retired from Patapsco Female Institute and settled in Baltimore, where she continued to write books and publish articles in periodicals. She encouraged other women to do the same, once writing in American Ladies Magazine that "[we] can render mutual benefits by the suggestions of individual experiences, and as it is often that the most humble and unpretending are the most exemplary, such should be encouraged to write for the ladies' periodicals; because everything dictated by nature and good sense is valuable and interesting." Phelps was honored in 1859 by being only the second woman (following astronomer Maria Mitchell ) elected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She died in 1884, on her 91st birthday.


Edgerly, Lois Stiles, ed. Give Her This Day: A Daybook of Women's Words. Gardiner, ME: Tilbury House, 1990.

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, 1980.

Norwood, Vera. Made from This Earth: American Women and Nature. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

Ogilvie, Marilyn Bailey. Women in Science: Antiquity Through the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986.

Sally A. Myers , Ph.D., freelance writer and editor

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Phelps, Almira Lincoln (1793–1884)

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