Dr. Laura Johnson Wylie, Ph.D.

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Dr. Laura Johnson Wylie, Ph.D.'s Geni Profile

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Dr. Laura Johnson Wylie, Ph.D.

Birthplace: Milton, Northumberland County, Pennsylvania, United States
Death: April 02, 1932 (76)
Poughkeepsie, Dutchess County, New York, United States
Place of Burial: Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, United States
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Rev. William Theodore Wylie and Sarah Murray Wylie
Sister of Samuel Wylie
Half sister of Margaret W. Wylie and Dr. Walter Livingston Wylie, M.D.

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About Dr. Laura Johnson Wylie, Ph.D.

Laura Johnson Wylie was born in Milton, Pennsylvania, on Dec. 1, 1855 to William Theodore Wylie and his wife Sarah Murray Johnson Wylie. Laura Johnson Wylie spent her childhood on the move, learning from her father and caring for a growing collection of half-siblings. When she entered Vassar as a freshman she was far behind her fellow classmates, later admitting that she hadn't been able to spell and that she knew almost nothing about geography. She quickly caught up, graduating in 1877 as valedictorian of her 45-person class. Her fellow students remembered her as a voracious reader, constantly in the Library with a book.

With such a love of the written word, it was no surprise to those who knew her that Miss Wylie became one of the first women admitted to graduate courses at Yale, where she wrote a thesis on "Sources of English Criticism," the first thesis by a woman that Yale published. While earning her Ph.D., Miss Wylie taught at private secondary schools. A member of the first group of women to receive, in 1894, the Yale Ph D, she returned to Vassar in 1895 as an English instructor. Within two years, she had risen to chair of the English Department, a position she kept until 1921.

As chair, Miss Wylie sought to reform the department along the lines of her unique philosophy of teaching. She shifted the focus of courses from a primarily literature based curriculum to classes that emphasized writing and developing a cohesive style of expression.

Freshmen work was especially crucial to Miss Wylie's new take on teaching English. She made sure the best teachers worked with the freshmen alongside the new teachers. The freshmen work was primarily creative instead of logical and mechanical – the idea was to foster a living sense of literature and writing. Department meetings increased under Miss Wylie's leadership and became forums for free discussion and collaboration on new experiments. The year of her retirement, her impact was most visible in an experimental course for seniors planning to go to graduate school.

Miss Wylie and her partner, Vassar Professor Gertrude Buck, welcomed students to their home every Thursday afternoon to play with Miss Wylie's beloved dogs and talk about classes, politics, and life in general. Miss Wylie was well known as a social being, often seen laughing with her students in the halls of Rocky or having intimate discussions in her office. She was interested in the poets.

Beyond the classroom, Miss Wylie's contributions were no less influential. At her death, newspapers throughout the region recognized her as the leader of the local suffrage movement. She founded the Equal Suffrage League with two other Vassar professors in 1909, and stayed deeply connected with the organization throughout her life. After the vote was won, the League became the Women's City and County Club – a group that conducted civic classes year round for women and boasted many Vassar professors as its members.

Miss Wylie served as president of the club until 1928, at which point she was named honorary president, a position she kept until her death in 1932. She also served on the board of the Poughkeepsie Community Theatre, which was founded by her partner, Gertrude Buck. The two teachers and friends professed and practiced a broad social philosophy. Their home on Market Street in the center of old Poughkeepsie became a rallying place for suffrage and for many other movements. The social interpretation of literature which these teachers conveyed in their classes at Vassar, was the outgrowth of their daily living in the community of this Hudson River town. With Miss Wylie's tremendous fervor and Miss Buck's fastidious standards, this success in their association with townsfolk would not have been predicted, yet it was immediate and constant in growth. Both of them left behind them enterprises of value which bid fair to be permanent assets in the neighborhood.

Miss Laura Wylie died on April 2, 1932, but she continued to influence the progressive community in Poughkeepsie. She left $10,000 to Vassar for town-gown relations, earmarked specifically to sustain Gertrude Buck's community theater. The home she had shared with Miss Buck was left to a trust that allowed the Women's Club to use it rent-free for six months, and after the six months, the Club bought the home outright to use as a headquarters. Today 112 Market Street still houses a progressive organization – the environmental organization, Hudson Sloop Clearwater. Friends of Miss Wylie banded together to publish a collection of memorial essays in 1934, "Miss Wylie of Vassar." The book is a testament to Miss Wylie's dedication to teaching and to humanity. Eleanor Roosevelt's contribution at the end of the collection sums up the impact Miss Wylie had on the campus and community at large: "Those of us who knew her will miss her always but her influence will live down through the years as long as we who remember her find ourselves unconsciously living up to her ideals and enthusiasms."

(Vassar Encyclopedia, by the Vassar Historian)

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Dr. Laura Johnson Wylie, Ph.D.'s Timeline

December 1, 1855
Milton, Northumberland County, Pennsylvania, United States
April 2, 1932
Age 76
Poughkeepsie, Dutchess County, New York, United States
Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, United States