Thompson, Elizabeth Rowell (1821–1899)

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Thompson, Elizabeth Rowell (1821–1899)

American philanthropist. Born Elizabeth Rowell on February 21, 1821, in Lyndon, Vermont; died on July 20, 1899, in Littleton, New Hampshire; daughter of Samuel Rowell and Mary (Atwood) Rowell; married Thomas Thompson, in January 1844 (died 1869); no children.

Underwrote the Chicago-Colorado Colony of Longmont, Colorado (1871); enrolled as the first patron of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1873); subsidized the establishment of the Yellow Fever Commission (1878); founded the Elizabeth Thompson Science Fund (1885).

A patron of the arts, scientific research, and women's political causes, Elizabeth Rowell Thompson was born in 1821 and grew up in a farming family of New Hampshire and Vermont. Intelligent and inquisitive, she attended public schools and worked as a maid in her teen years. Her life changed dramatically when, on a visit to Boston in 1843, at age 22, she happened to meet Thomas Thompson. Wealthy, well educated, and more than 20 years her senior, Thompson fell in love with Elizabeth, and they were married only a few weeks later. The couple lived in Boston and New York City, where they indulged their interests in collecting art and supporting charitable and political causes.

After her husband's death in 1869, Elizabeth Thompson, a very wealthy widow with no children, expanded her philanthropic activities. Perhaps her most important contributions were to organizations for scientific research. A professed Christian but not a member of any one church, she donated generously to organizations working in the natural sciences. Her gift of $1,000 to the new American Association for the Advancement of Science and her donation of over $25,000 to a start-up organization called the International Scientific Society were only two of the more significant gifts she made. The International Scientific Society soon folded, but its leaders later organized as the Elizabeth Thompson Science Fund.

Elizabeth Thompson was also an important patron of the campaigns for women's suffrage and the Christian temperance movement. In the 1870s, she also supported experiments in communitarian living. She provided the seed money for the Chicago-Colorado Colony in Longmont, Colorado, designed in 1871 to provide a cooperative, self-supporting community for residents of overpopulated urban areas.

Although the colony failed to attract the expected migrants from the East Coast, Thompson did not lose hope in such preplanned communities, and in 1879 she founded the Co-operative Colony Aid Association with clerics and the British utopian George Jacob Holyoake, who personally enjoyed Thompson's support for many years. Thompson was also the principal patron of the communal farm in Salina, Kansas, known as the Thompson Colony.

Elizabeth Thompson suffered partial paralysis after an apoplectic attack in 1890, and was forced to give up the active philanthropic life she had led for almost 50 years. Her last decade was spent being cared for by family in Connecticut. She died in Littleton, New Hampshire, at age 78, in 1899. Her estate had an estimated worth of over $400,000 at her death, though she made no bequests for charitable causes in her will.


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

Read, Phyllis, and Bernard L. Witlieb. The Book of Women's Firsts. NY: Random House, 1992.

Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California

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Thompson, Elizabeth Rowell (1821–1899)

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