Mary Lyon, founder of Mount Holyoke College

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Mary Lyon, founder of Mount Holyoke College's Geni Profile

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Mary Mason Lyon

Also Known As: "Founder of Mount Holyoke College"
Birthdate: (52)
Birthplace: Lyon Farm, Buckland, Franklin, Massachusetts, United States
Death: March 5, 1849 (52)
Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Hampshire, Massachusetts, United States (Erysipelas (possibly contracted from an ill student in her care))
Place of Burial: South Hadley, Hampshire, Massachusetts, United States
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Aaron Lyon, Jr. and Jemima Lyon
Sister of Jemima Wing; Electa Lyon; Rosina Ellsworth; Freelove Wing; Aaron Lyon and 2 others

Occupation: Teacher, Chemist, Mount Holyoke College Founder
Managed by: Gene Daniell
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Mary Lyon, founder of Mount Holyoke College

Women's Education Pioneer, Founder of Mount Holyoke College

Mary Mason Lyon was born on February 28, 1797 in Buckland, Franklin Co., Massachusetts to farmer Aaron Lyon, Jr. and his wife, Jemima. The family was Baptist, but Lyon later converted to Congregationalism, being baptized in 1822, under the influence of her mentor, the Rev. Joseph Emerson.

Personal Characteristics

Lyon was described by Sarah Cushing Boynton, Mount Holyoke Class of 1848, as:

  • "Rather under the medium height, with a strong, muscular frame, a florid complexion, with blazing, light-blue Saxon eyes, kindly, severe, or pathetic, as occasion warranted, but with now and then a sparkle of irrepressible merriment; hair of palest auburn, the sunny waves just sparsely threaded with gray, and so riotous in habit as to be never quite as smooth as fashion decreed, strands of it waving and jigging about her temples in an entirely unwished for manner. She always wore a demure little lace cap, strings flying as she hurried about, with a generous coil of her beautiful hair gleaming through its thin meshes behind."


Her childhood was marked by upheaval, including her father's death when she was five and her mother's remarriage (and subsequent abandonment of her daughter and the family farm) when Mary was 13. After her mother's departure, Mary was left behind to work with her brother on the farm and made money doing chores to pay for her own room and board while in school. Her formal education included attendance at Sanderson Academy in Ashfield and Byfield Seminary in eastern Massachusetts.

Early Teaching Career

By 1814, at the age of 17, Lyon was teaching in New England schools. Most notably, she taught at her alma mater at Sanderson, her own small school she ran in Buckland, Adams Female Academy (run by her long-time friend and collaborator Zilpah Polly Grant), and the Ipswich Female Seminary (also run by Grant).

While she was teaching at Ipswich Female Seminary, Lyon played a vital role in the founding of Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts. Due to her work and reputation at Ipswich, she was offered the position of principal of the soon-to-open Wheaton Female Seminary. Although she declined the position, she agreed to serve as a consultant to the Laban Morey Wheaton and was responsible for developing the college's governing rules and its first curriculum. She spent most of 1835 splitting her time between helping Wheaton get off the ground and getting her own institution, which would become Mount Holyoke, up and running as well.

Founding of Mount Holyoke

Lyon's vision of creating a female seminary of her own was finally realized with the opening of the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, now Mount Holyoke College, in 1837. The town of South Hadley in Hampshire County, Massachusetts offered her financial incentives to locate her seminary there and the town became both the seminary's and Lyon's home.

The institutional was notable from the start due to its commitment to offering women from lower socioeconomic backgrounds a chance to attain a strong education, which was rare at the time. She also believed in vocational training for women (especially to prepare them for teaching careers), requiring students to engage in rigorous exercise on a daily basis, and one of the earliest forms of a work/study program. She also offered college-level training in mathematics, geology, biology, and other subjects not offered by other women's seminaries at the time.

Due to training she had received in chemistry and nursing, Lyon also served as a teacher and nurse to the seminary as well as its president, then called "principal." She lived on campus in her own apartment in a building that has since been demolished. (The Mary Lyon Hall that exists today is merely named in her honor and not a building that existed while she was on campus.)

Death & Burial

Mary Lyon died on March 5, 1849 in her apartment on the Mount Holyoke campus. She died of erysipelas, also known as "holy fire" or "St. Anthony's fire," an acute streptococcus bacterial infection of the deep epidermis. It is likely that she contracted the condition from an ill student in her care at the time.

She was buried in a tomb located on the campus, in the part of the main green known as the Grove, between Porter Hall and the Gettell Amphitheatre. Her tomb is still a central point on the campus and is decorated every May with a laurel wreath placed there by the graduating class. It is inscribed with a quotation from Lyon herself: "There is nothing in the universe that I am afraid of but that I shall not know and do all my duty."

Memorials to Lyon

Mary Lyon has been memorialized in many ways. In addition to the main administrative building at Mount Holyoke, buildings named for her can be found on campuses as diverse as the Rock School, Swarthmore College, Plymouth State University, Iowa State University, Miami University of Ohio, Wheaton College (her former institution), and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the latter of which is part of the Five Colleges consortium with Mount Holyoke College. The Mount Holyoke athletic teams are also known as the "Lyons."

In 1905, Lyon was inducted into the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. In 1993, she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame. In 2005, she was inducted into the Western Massachusetts Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame. She has also been honored by the United States Postal Service with a 2¢ postage stamp as part of the "Great Americans" series. Her former church in Buckland is now known as the Mary Lyon Church.

Perhaps most notably, her legacy lives on through the creation of colleges modeled after or inspired by Mount Holyoke, including Wellesley College, Mills College, and Smith College.

This profile was written by J. Ashley Odell in April 2011. It should not be reposted elsewhere without attribution.

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Mary Lyon, founder of Mount Holyoke College's Timeline

February 28, 1797
Buckland, Franklin, Massachusetts, United States
Age 24
March 5, 1849
Age 52
South Hadley, Hampshire, Massachusetts, United States
March 5, 1849
Age 52
South Hadley, Hampshire, Massachusetts, United States
South Hadley, Massachusetts, United States