Wood, Mary Elizabeth (1861–1931)

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Wood, Mary Elizabeth (1861–1931)

American missionary and librarian who helped found the National Library of Peking (Beijing) with funds raised in the United States . Born on August 22, 1861, in Elba, New York; died on May 1, 1931, in Wuchang, China; daughter of Edward Farmer Wood and Mary Jane (Humphrey) Wood; educated at the Pratt Institute, New York, and Simmons College, Boston; never married.

Born in Elba, New York, Mary Elizabeth Wood was an Episcopal missionary and librarian in China for 30 years. Shortly after Wood's birth in 1861, her family moved to Batavia, New York, where she attended private and public schools. After graduating from Batavia High School, she worked for ten years as the librarian of the newly founded Richmond Library in Batavia.

A visit to China in 1899 to see her brother Robert Wood, an Episcopal missionary in Wuchang, turned into a lifelong educational and religious mission for Mary Wood. She learned to speak Chinese (although she did not learn to read it) and decided to stay to teach at her brother's Boone School. In 1904, Wood was made a lay missionary by the Episcopal Church. That year, the reigning Manchu government of China abolished the traditional Chinese education system in favor of Western-style learning. Chinese schools and colleges needed libraries to support the new learning, and Wood saw an opportunity to combine library science with her missionary work. She returned to the United States in 1906 to solicit private funding for a library building for the Boone School; her benefactors included philanthropist Olivia Phelps Stokes and a former Columbia University president, Seth Low.

Wood made other trips back to the States in succeeding years, studying library science at the Pratt Institute and Simmons College while seeking additional patrons for her Chinese library campaigns. These campaigns included establishing a series of branch libraries at state and private colleges in Wuchang and Hankow, and arranging for "traveling libraries" to tour schools and factories so that workers could benefit from the Chinese and English books as well.

A tireless fund raiser, Wood also funded scholarships for two Chinese students to study library science in the United States; they returned to China to assist her in founding a school for library science at Boone College in 1920. The school had trained nearly 500 Chinese librarians before its closure after the Communist revolution of 1949; it was subsequently reopened as an affiliate of National Wuhan University.

As part of her ongoing effort to secure funding for a true national library system, in 1923 Wood had a petition signed by Chinese leaders asking the U.S. Congress to allot a part of the $6 million paid by China to the U.S. after the Boxer Rebellion of 1899 for public library development. She took the signed petition to Washington, D.C., where she made her case in personal interviews with hundreds of members of Congress, including Senator William Cabell Bruce, who wrote of Wood's "unselfish zeal … tact and good sense." Her appeal was successful, and Congress passed a bill establishing a fund for educational activities in China, which later totaled $12 million.

The fund allowed Wood to return to China and establish the National Library of Peking (Beijing), as well as scholarships at the Boone Library School; she was also influential in the establishment of the Library Association of China in 1926. After she withdrew the Boone Library School from its affiliation with the missionary Huachung University, Wood devoted her last few years to raising funds to endow the Boone Library School under an American-controlled board (later called the Mary Elizabeth Wood Foundation). Mary Wood died of a heart attack in Wuchang in 1931, at age 69, mourned by many Chinese friends and colleagues for her devotion to her cause. Her body was cremated and her ashes buried in Batavia Cemetery.


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

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

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