Alice Freeman Palmer

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Alice Elvira Freeman Palmer
Bust of Palmer
Born (1855-02-21)February 21, 1855
Colesville, New York
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Paris, France
Resting place Wellesley College, Houghton Chapel, Wellesley, MA
Education University of Michigan,B.A., Ph.D. (hon.)
D.Litt Columbia, LL.D Union University(hon.)
Occupation College President,
Spouse(s) George Herbert Palmer (d. 1933)
Parent(s) Joseph and Elizabeth Freeman

Alice Freeman Palmer (February 21, 1855 – December 6, 1902) was an American educator. As Alice Freeman, she was Principal of Wellesley College from 1882 to 1887, when she left to marry the Harvard professor George Herbert Palmer. From 1892 to 1895 she was Dean of Women at the newly founded University of Chicago.

Early life

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 as her father knew there was no future in it, he let the family take care of the farm while he gained further education and became a doctor. He enrolled in medical school in 1861 and graduated 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 had broken off the engagement to attend college.

Freeman 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. Freeman 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 Freeman took an entrance examination at the University of Michigan. Despite deficiency in some areas, she made a strong impression on James B. Angell, who admitted her "under condition." At the University of Michigan, because of her charisma and hardworking attitude, Freeman 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, she taught at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin (1876–77) and was head of the high school at Saginaw, Michigan (1877–79). Her father declared bankruptcy in 1877 after losing family funds in a mining investment; Alice then moved the family to Saginaw to a rented house that was paid for with her principal's salary.

Wellesley College

Henry Fowle Durant, the founder of Wellesley College, offered Freeman instructorships in mathematics, and then Greek, at Wellesley College in 1877 and 1878, respectively, but she refused them. However, in 1879 she accepted the position as head of the history department and became a favorite of Wellesley students. Later that same year, her younger sister Estelle became ill and died. Freeman did not allow this loss to slow her down, however, and in 1881 Freeman founded the Association of Collegiate Alumnae (which later became the American Association of University Women.) She would serve as its President from 1885-1887 and 1889-1890. In October 1881, she was named vice president and acting president of Wellesley.

When Durant died, Freeman, 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. Freeman attempted to take steps forward with the touchy subject of academics at Wellesley, pushing students and faculty toward higher levels of achievement. Along with gaining this position in 1882, Freeman was awarded an honorary Ph.D. by the University of Michigan.

Marriage and later life

During her time at Wellesley she met her future husband, George Herbert Palmer, who taught at Harvard.[1] They married in 1887; she soon resigned from her position at Wellesley College and began to give public speeches on women's higher public education. While summering at her husband's home in Boxford, MA, she explored the local area, took up photography, and sewed. She composed many beautiful poems, some of which are found in her "Life of Alice Freeman Palmer" and "A Marriage Cycle."

During the early 1890s, the president of the new University of Chicago asked both Palmer and her husband to join the faculty. Her husband refused to leave Cambridge, but Palmer felt strongly about the opportunity and in 1892 accepted a post as non-resident dean of the women's department at Chicago. She stayed in the post for three years, helping shape the women's program and working toward the same goals she reached during her time at Wellesley. She resigned because of struggles to maintain her personal commitments.


In December 1902, while the Palmers were in Paris on sabbatical, she complained of pains that prompted medical attention. It was discovered that life-threatening surgery was needed to fix an anomaly in her liver. She chose to have surgery done. During convalescence in a Catholic hospital, she died peacefully. Her death, confirmed in cablegram sent by her husband back home to the family, was a shock to the world. A service was held in Paris, and her body was cremated, partially because of her requests and partially because of problems with the French government releasing a body out of the country. Palmer's life was commemorated at a service at Harvard University in 1903 attended by college presidents whom she knew and other notable individuals in higher education.

George Herbert Palmer retained her ashes until 1909, when a monument was erected at Wellesley College. He felt that it would be a suitable resting place and one that would inspire generations of women. A committee headed by prominent men and women such as Charles William Eliot raised subscriptions and hired Daniel Chester French as the artist, for it was felt that he would best convey her character. The monument can be see at Houghton Chapel at Wellesley College.[2] George had his own ashes entombed beside his wife's in 1933.

Posthumous honors

In 1920, Alice Freeman Palmer was elected to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans.

In 1921, Whittier College named a new women's literary society after her. 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 the 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's goal is still to "attain to the highest ideals of American womanhood."

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


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  2. College News June 16, 1909.

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