Mrs. Emma Willard
City of Troy

Information on this page is from "History of Rensselaer Co., New York," by Nathaniel Bartlett Sylvester, published in 1880.

MRS. EMMA WILLARD, the first principal of this institution [The Troy Female Seminary], and the pioneer in the great work of female education, was born in a quite country farm-house in Berlin, Conn., Feb. 23, 1787. Samuel and Lydia (Hinsdale) Hart, were her parents. "Born of the best New England stock, she inherited the noblest qualities of her parentage."1

"Her father, a man of unusual strength of intellect and will, was self-reliant and well-read; and her mother, a quiet and practical woman, gifted with native tact and shrewdness, gentle, firm, and efficient. In this home, where Emma was the sixteenth child,--one of the seventeen of her father's children, and one of the ten whom her own mother had borne him,--she had her early training. But she used her opportunities well. Early in her mere girlhood she commenced teaching, and was soon crowned with the laurels of her first success."2 Still later she taught the excellent academy in Westfield, Mass. In August, 1809, she married Dr. John Willard, of Middlebury, and for a few years her work of teaching was interrupted; but in 1814 she opened in the last-named place a boarding-school for girls. But she was preparing for something more. She had detected how low and unworthy were the aims and results of that class of schools. She was especially stuck with the difference between the collegiate course of a young man and the highest culture which the best schools of the day furnished young women; and the discovery had been to her a summons to a new work. She entered upon it with enthusiasm. "Working daily ten, twelve, or even fifteen house in her school duties, she still takes time to master new studies herself that she may in due time carry her pupils through them. And so by exploring new fields of sciences and literature herself' by teaching and drilling her classes, as few classes of young ladies had ever before been drilled' by adding to the old course new studies; and by skillfully winning over to her new ideas a few leading minds, she was preparing the way for a new era in woman's education. Some four years were spent in this preparation. Meanwhile the fame of her experiment had gone far and wide, and she was no prepared to take the first steps towards a permanent institution in which her enlarged views and hopes could be more fully realized. The very location of the institution was a matter of careful thought; and for it the State of New York, and the neighborhood of the head-waters of the Hudson, was chosen." In 1818 she submitted her plans to Governor Clinton, who heartily approved them; "the Legislature so far indorsed them as to incorporate an academy at Waterford, N. Y., in which the founder might still more clearly show their feasibility; and an acknowledgment that the female academies in the State should receive the same pecuniary aid from the literature fund as the educational institutions for the other sex. In the spring of 1819 the Waterford school was opened by Dr. and Mrs. Willard. It's success was so pronounced as to call out a meritorious mention from Governor Clinton in his message of 1820." The citizens of Troy then proposed to furnish a building and grounds for a larger institution, if Mrs. Willard would consent to a removal to that city; she accepted, and in May, 1821, took possession of the Troy property, which since that date has been known as the Troy Female Seminary.

Her husband, who had been a real partner and sharer of her work, died in 1825. But she bore the burden alone, and for many years, until relieved of it by her son, John H. Willard, and his wife, both of whom were specially fitted for the important trust.

"It is really no marvel that one with such a physical and mental constitution as she inherited, and with the care which her maturer years had exercised over both her body and brain, should at fifty years of age give to the world her Troy Seminary; at sixty her original demonstration on the "Motive Powers in the Circulation of the Blood;"3 at sixty-two her treatise on "Respiration and its Effects;" and at sixty-five a work on astronomy, which even the masters in the science were willing to indorse. It is no marvel that at fifty-eight she could, in a journey of eight thousand miles, traverse a continent, rejoicing everywhere equally in the joy of her pupils and in the prosperity of the schools for young ladies which her influence had contributed to found; nor that at sixty-seven she could cross the ocean, mingle in the exercises of and enjoy the honors of the World's Educational Convention, and thence make the tour of the Continent tributary still to her zeal for observation and learning.

But not alone in literary and educational works4 did she user her powers. Her religious character, developed by effective Christian culture, was manifested in a variety of worthy channels. She was a member of the Episcopal Church. Her benevolence was of an active nature, and her charity wide-reaching. It is safe to say that more than twenty thousand dollars have been her unostentatious offering to the cause of women's education alone.

Here was a useful and an honored life. Until the year before she died her correspondence was extensive and varied, showing activity of mind, if not the power of sustained labor. At no period of her life were her literary labors greater than in her last years.5 She died in 1870, and her last resting-place is in Oakwood Cemetery, Troy.

1 Eminent Women of the Age.
2 Rev. E. B. Huntington.
3 This treatise, published in 1846, arrested the attention of the medical faculty, and won for its author the reputation of a successful discoverer.
4 For a list of her writings, see chapter on authors and books.
5 "Life of Mrs. Willard," John Lord, LL.D.

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