Shattuck, Lydia (1822–1889)

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Shattuck, Lydia (1822–1889)

American naturalist, botanist, and educator. Born Lydia White Shattuck on June 10, 1822, in East Landaff, New Hampshire; died on November 2, 1889, in South Hadley, Massachusetts; daughter of Timothy Shattuck (a farmer) and Betsy (Fletcher) Shattuck; graduated from Mt. Holyoke Seminary in 1851; never married; no children.

Lydia Shattuck was born in 1822 on a farm in rural New Hampshire near the Franconia Mountains. Her father was a farmer whose ancestors had arrived in New England in 1642, and her mother was a woman of artistic sensibility who encouraged Shattuck's love of wild flowers. Both parents were supportive of her desire to obtain an education and become an independent woman.

Shattuck completed her secondary education and started working as a teacher at a district school at the age of 15. For the next 11 years, she taught and pursued her education at more advanced schools in New Hampshire and Vermont. Shattuck enrolled at Mt. Holyoke Seminary in South Hadley, Massachusetts, in 1848, and soon became a student and follower of the school's founder, Mary Lyon , who was then in very poor health. Under Lyon's tutelage, Shattuck expanded her love of wild flowers into a consuming interest in botany. She also maintained a working knowledge of chemistry, physics, physiology, and astronomy. Shattuck graduated from Mt. Holyoke with honors in 1851, and remained on campus to become an instructor.

She quickly became one of the most highly regarded teachers at Mt. Holyoke, and her reputation was sufficient to gain her selection by Louis Agassiz as one of the initial 50 students at the Anderson School of Natural History at Penikese Island, off Woods Hole, Massachusetts, in 1873. While on Penikese Island, Shattuck obtained knowledge in the new field of marine biology and developed professional contacts among her scientific colleagues. In later years, she was a member of the Woods Hole Biological Laboratory Corporation.

After returning to Mt. Holyoke, Shattuck was instrumental in the creation of the school's herbarium and botanical gardens—she personally collected many of the specimens held by these collections. She traveled extensively in her capacity as a botanist, visiting Canada, Europe, the western United States, and Hawaii in search of new and rare plants. Aside from the establishment of botanical collections, her primary contribution to the field of botany was as a classifier of plant species. Although she did not publish any notable scholarly works, she corresponded regularly with the leading naturalists of the day, including Asa Gray, an early proponent of Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection. While she was a religious woman who believed that the beauty of the natural world was evidence of divine providence, she nonetheless was persuaded by Darwin's new theory, which was causing a worldwide uproar, and shared it at the school. Through her teaching activities, Shattuck also wielded considerable influence within the scientific community. She inspired her students to note the beauty of nature even while examining it in a scientific manner.

Mt. Holyoke Seminary became Mt. Holyoke College in 1888, and the following year Shattuck retired as professor emeritus. She continued to live on campus as her health rapidly failed, and she died there on November 2, 1889. Following her death, Mt. Holyoke named its newly constructed chemistry and physics building in her honor. A later physics building, built in the 1950s to replace the first one, was also named after her.


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

Grant Eldridge , freelance writer, Pontiac, Michigan