Lydia Wadleigh was born in Sutton, NH on February 8, 1817. She was the youngest daughter of Judge Benjamin and Polly Mastin Wadleigh. Judge Wadleigh was an advocate of education and he took every measure to insure that his children were well educated.
Lydia probably received her grammar school education in the District 7 school house in North Sutton. She continued her education at the New Hampton Literary and Scientific Institution. She excelled at her studies and was chosen pupil assistant. In 1841 she graduated with honors and was appointed to be teacher of mathematics, Greek and English literature at the school.
Lydia proved herself to be an exceptional teacher at New Hampton. She often used her free time to help students who were having a difficult time. She was a good disciplinarian. After four years of teaching at New Hampton, Lydia decided it was time to move on. Her reputation for excellence resulted in many offers to teach at other schools. She accepted a position with Mrs. Ellis's private school in Hanover. Next, she became lady principal of the academy in Derry. She taught at Concord High School. In 1848 she was a teacher at Georgetown in Washington, D. C. She remained there until 1852 when she returned to New Hampshire to work with Mrs. Ellis and her new school in Nashua. She was next associated with schools in Philadelphia and Freehold, NJ.
During this time there was growing dissatifacation with public education in New York City. The course of education was limited and was not progressive. There was little or no provisions for the secondary education of girls. Some of the citizens of New York wanted to change this. Their opposition said that it was a waste of the taxpayers money to even consider this. Eventually it was decided to create a department devoted to the higher education of girls at the 12th Street Grammar School as an experiment.
In 1855 Lydia Wadleigh was contacted at her school in Freehold, NJ and was offered the position of principal of the experimental department which she accepted. She assumed her new position on February 6, 1856. At first it appeared that the new department would fail. There were only 26 students. There were not enough text books and no funds were available to purchase more. Many of the students did not like the discipline which Lydia demanded. The school was criticized. Lydia did not allow the conditions to break her spirit. Instead, she expanded the curriculum to include higher mathematics, higher astronomy, logic, natural and mental philosophy and the languages. The school board did not provide funds for the new courses. The text books were supplied and paid for by the teachers. Lydia convinced the school board that the experiment would be a success. In 1859, eleven of the first twenty six students graduated. Lydia bought diplomas for each of the students. The commencement ceremony was the first ever held in New York City. From that time on the senior department was always at capacity and for several years it was considered to be at the center of the city's education. It was Lydia's vision and perseverance which insured the success and popularity of the senior department. She was proud of the accomplishments of her students.
A normal college was established in 1871 and incorporated into the senior department. Lydia was appointed vice president of the college, a position she held until her death. She also served as Professor of Ethics at the college. She was the first woman to be appointed to a professorship at the college. At one time Lydia was the highest paid woman teacher in New York state.
Lydia went to Europe during the summer of 1888. She became seriously ill in Paris and retuned to New York. She died on October 27, 1888. Her funeral in New York City at the University Place Presbyterian Church was crowded with many of her former students, the college faculty, the school board, and her friends present. Her remains were taken to Sutton where a second service was held at her childhood home, The Wadleigh Homestead. She was buried at the cemetery in North Sutton. The City of New York has honored Lydia by naming one of its high schools for her.