Alice Freeman Palmer, President of Wellesley College

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Alice Elvira Palmer (Freeman)

Birthdate: (47)
Birthplace: Colesville Broome County New York
Death: 1902 (47)
Paris City of Paris Île-de-France, France ( anomaly in her liver)
Place of Burial: Wellesley College Columbarium Wellesley Norfolk County Massachusetts
Immediate Family:

Daughter of James Warren Freeman and Elizabeth j Palmer
Wife of George Herbert Palmer
Sister of Estelle Palmer

Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About Alice Freeman Palmer, President of Wellesley College

Alice Freeman Palmer (February 21, 1855 – December 6, 1902) was an American educator.

She was born Alice Elvira Freeman in Colesville, New York and brought up in Windsor, New York. Her parents both came from well-to-do families with interests in lumber, dairy farming and land. Alice was born a farmer's daughter but her father knew there was no future for him in farming, so he left the family to take care of the farm while he gained further education and became a doctor. He enrolled in medical school in 1861 and completed the M.D. in 1864.

At Windsor, she met Thomas Barclay, a student at Yale who, to pay off his college expenses, was teaching at the time. He encouraged her intellectual curiosity and served as her mentor. They became close and were engaged by 1869. By 1871 however, she broke off the engagement to attend college.

Alice showed determination at a young age by teaching herself to read by age four when she entered school. Her first job out of high school was at a private secondary school in Wisconsin, Lake Geneva Seminary. Alice desperately wanted to also continue her education, but her family could not allow this unless she promised to assist them in supporting the family, while she was away at college. So while she attended college she took teaching jobs to help her family. In 1872 she took an entrance examination at the University of Michigan. She showed deficiency in some areas but because of the strong impression she made on James B. Angell, he admitted her “under condition.” At the University of Michigan because of her charisma and hardworking attitude, Alice was invited to many social and academic events. She was one of four speakers at her commencement in 1876, despite the low numbers of women enrolled there.

After she graduated from the University of Michigan in 1876, she taught at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin (1876–77) and was head of the high school at Saginaw, Mich. (1877–79). Her father declared bankruptcy in 1877 after losing family funds in a mining investment. Alice moved the family to Saginaw to a rented house that was paid for with her principal’s salary. In 1892 she became non-resident dean of the women's department at the University of Chicago, and a spokeswoman for women's place in higher education.

Henry Fowle Durant, the founder of Wellesley College, offered Palmer instructorships in mathematics and then Greek at Wellesley College in 1877 and 1878 but she refused them. In 1879 however, she accepted the position as head of the history department. She was a favorite of Wellesley students. Later in 1879 her younger sister Estelle became ill and died. Alice did not let this loss slow her down however, because in 1881 Palmer founded the Association of Collegiate Alumnae. Also, in Oct. of 1881 she was named vice president and acting president of Wellesley.

When Durant died, Palmer, at 26 years old, was elected president of the college. When she took the presidency, there was still a strained debate over the education of women. She was the first woman to be the head of a nationally known college. Palmer is also well known for helping the school become more well-rounded and a liberal arts college. Although a touchy subject, Palmer attempted to take steps forward with academics at Wellesley. She pushed her students and faculty to reach for higher levels of achievement and strived to educate her women to lead, not follow. Along with gaining this position in 1882, Alice was awarded the honorary Ph.D by the University of Michigan.

During her time at Wellesley she met her future husband, George Herbert Palmer, who taught at Harvard. They were married in 1887. She resigned from her position at Wellesley College, and began to give public speeches on women's higher public education. She is also a founder of the American Association of University Women. Palmer summered in Boxford, MA at her husband's home. During those long summer furloughs she explored the local area, took up photography, and sewed. She composed many beautiful poems, of which are found in Palmer's "Life of Alice Freeman Palmer" and "A Marriage Cycle."

During the early 1890s, the president of the new University of Chicago asked both Alice and her husband to join the faculty. Her husband refused to leave Cambridge but Palmer felt strongly about the opportunity. She stayed in Chicago for three years. During which she helped shape the women’s program and worked toward the same goals which she reached during her time at Wellesley. She resigned because of struggles to maintain her personal commitments. Once back in Boston she continued her leadership.

In December 1902 while the Palmers were in Paris on sabbatical that she complained of pains that prompted medical attention. It was discovered that life threatening surgery was needed to fix a rare anomaly in the liver. She choose to have surgery done. During convalescence in a Catholic hospital, she died peacefully. Her death was a shock to the whole world, at first hard to imagine, but confirmed in cablegram sent by her husband back home to the family. A service was held in Paris and her body was cremated, due to her requests and the problems of the French government releasing the body out of the country. Palmer's life was commemorated at a service at Harvard University in 1903 by college presidents she knew and other noted people.

Due to vague recordings it is plausible to believe that Professor Palmer retained her ashes until 1909 when a monument was erected at Wellesley College. He felt that it would be a suitable resting place that would inspire generations of girls. A committee headed by prominent men and women such as Charles William Eliot raised subscriptions and hired Daniel Chester French for it was felt it he would best display her character. The monument can be see at Houghton Chapel at Wellesley College. Husband George had his ashes entombed beside his wife's in 1933.

In World War II, the United States liberty ship SS Alice F. Palmer was named in her honor.

In 1920, she was elected to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans.

In 1921, Whittier College (Whittier, California) named a new women's literary society after Ms. Palmer. The College had as its mission to create a female literary society, with the hope of bringing such groups back to Whittier College after they faded from existence at the beginning of World War I. Fullerton Junior College transfer Jessamynn West and friends reportedly researched and lobbied extensively to name the group for Alice Freeman Palmer, due to her reputation as a staunch advocate of higher education for women during the late 19th century. In those early years, the Palmer Society was an intercollegiate society that read and performed plays with the school's cross-town rival, Occidental College.

Today, the Palmer Society is a vibrant, diverse group women who still strive to "attain to the highest ideals of American womanhood." These and future Palmers grow to value the friendship, loyalty, service, and scholarship that are the cornerstones of the society named in honor of Ms. Palmer.

"Her charming manners, noble character, amiable temper, scholarly power, find their full opportunity and inspire such friendships as are seldom made afterward."

-Alice Freeman Palmer "Why Should Girls Go To College" -circa 1898


G. H. Palmer, The Life of Alice Freeman Palmer (Boston and New York, 1908)
College News June 16, 1909-General history of Palmer memorial
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Alice Freeman Palmer, President of Wellesley College's Timeline

Colesville Broome County New York
Age 47
Paris City of Paris Île-de-France, France
Wellesley College Columbarium Wellesley Norfolk County Massachusetts