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Shafer, Helen Almira (1839–1894)

Shafer, Helen Almira (1839–1894)

American educator and college president. Born on September 23, 1839, in Newark, New Jersey; died on January 20, 1894, in Wellesley, Massachusetts; graduated from Oberlin College, 1863; never married.

Taught in New Jersey; taught mathematics at St. Louis High School under William Torrey Harris; offered chair in mathematics at newly founded Wellesley College (1877); succeeded Alice Freeman Palmer as president of Wellesley (1888–94).

Helen Almira Shafer was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1839 and spent the early years of her life there until her father, a Congregational minister, moved the family to Oberlin, Ohio. She graduated from Oberlin College in 1863, where she had been an outstanding student. Shafer spent two years teaching in New Jersey and then moved to St. Louis High School to teach mathematics.

By 1877, Shafer had established her reputation as a gifted teacher, attracting the attention of her talented contemporary William Torrey Harris, then the superintendent of St. Louis schools and later the U.S. commissioner of education. She was offered the chair of mathematics at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, then only two years old. Working hard to build her department from scratch—and establish the highest possible standards—Shafer was recognized for the intellectual rigor and unqualified success of her teaching methods. It was said that Wellesley mathematics students outperformed their male counterparts at Harvard.

In 1888, Shafer succeeded Alice Freeman Palmer as president of Wellesley. Judicious, practical and well liked, Shafer worked to reorganize and broaden the college's curriculum. She introduced the elective system that continued to characterize Wellesley long after her tenure ended. She also established a psychological laboratory, the first in a women's college and one of the earliest in any college, in 1891. In 1892, she recommended to the trustees that alumnae be represented on the Wellesley board.

As well, she presided over a liberalization of the college's social life, restoring some sororities and overseeing the introduction of the college periodicals, the old Courant (1888), the Prelude (1889), and the first senior annual, the Legenda of 1889. What has been described as the "old boarding-school type of discipline" was relaxed in favor of greater independence for students. As former student Caroline Williamson Montgomery noted in a memorial sketch of Shafer: "Again and again have Wellesley students said, 'She treats us like women, and knows that we are reasoning beings.'"

A quiet and dignified woman with a keen sense of humor, completely dedicated to her chosen profession, Shafer spent the last ten years of her life quietly battling tuberculosis. Her health forced her to spend the winter of 1890–91 in the milder climate of Thomasville, Georgia, but she returned to Wellesley as soon as she could. Popular with students and faculty, she was made an honorary member of the class of 1891. Shafer died in January 1894, the only Wellesley president to die while in office. In 1902, her portrait, painted by Kenyon Cox, was presented to the college by the Alumnae Association.


Converse, Florence. Wellesley College: A Chronicle of the Years 1875–1938. Wellesley, MA: Hathaway House Bookshop, 1939.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Paula Morris , D.Phil., Brooklyn, New York

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