Biography of Lucy Wheelock

(1857 - 1946)

Photo of Lucy WheelockLucy Wheelock, educator, and founder of Wheelock College, was born 1 Feb 1857, in Cambridge, VT, the daughter of Edwin Wheelock and Laura Pierce. Her father graduated from the University of Vermont, was a Congregational clergyman, a superintendent of Schools, a representative to the Vermont Legislature, and, briefly, a state senator. Her mother was a teacher and briefly ran a small school. Her grandparents, Samuel Wheelock and Polly Adams were early settlers of Eden, VT.

Strong religious influence and upbringing characterized Lucy's early years in Cambridge, VT. It was through her mother's Bible readings and catechisms that she learned to read; and her fathers faith and religious influence affected her deeply, remaining with her as a positive force for the rest of her life. Her early education took place at home and in the small school that her mother ran for a year or two. At the age of twelve she went to Underhill Academy in Vermont, where she studied Latin, History, and other subjects. After a year at Underhill, she moved with a neighbor to Reading, MA, in order to attend high school. Here, in addition to her high school studies, she travelled into Boston for French lessons and began to learn translation, at which she became adept. Later, she would continue her study of languages, including German, and engaged in the translation of many works, including those of the German educator Friedrich Froebel, and some of the childrens stories of Johanna Spyri, author of Heidi.

After graduating from Reading High School in 1874, Lucy returned to Cambridge, VT, for a brief period of teaching. Her ambitions were to attend Wellesley College, which was set to open in 1875 as a model educational institution for women. To prepare for Wellesley, she applied to (and attended) the Chauncy-Hall School, one of the few private coeducational institutions in Boston. Here she met Alice Stone Blackwell, a fellow student who went on to become a leading women's rights activist, and editor of the Woman's Journal. The two remained close for life. Lucy continued her study of languages at Chauncy-Hall, and soon completed her college preparatory work for Wellesley. It was during this time that she visited a kindergarten class, and found her avocation. She was so taken with the idea of teaching children, that she dropped her Wellesley ambitions, and approached Elizabeth Peabody for advice on how to enter the profession of kindergarten education. Ms. Peabody, one of the first American followers of the educational philosophy of Friedrich Froebel, advised Lucy to enter the training school of Mrs. Ella Snelling Hatch, where Ms. Peabody was a frequent lecturer. And thus Lucy's education career was started.

Upon completion of kindergarten training in 1879, she returned to Chauncey-Hall where she taught the kindergarten class for ten years, an endeavor she enjoyed immensely. She revered Froebel, and followed his curriculum closely, but was not afraid to deviate from it when she felt the need. Her kindergarten became well known, even controversial. She was criticized by strict Froebellians for her deviation from the curriculum, and she had a steady stream of visitors who came to observe her teaching methods.

In 1888 Boston instituted kindergartens in the Boston Public Schools. Lucy was asked to establish a training class for teachers. She was reluctant to take on such a formidable task, but on advice, agreed to do so. The class was established and in time it began attracting students nationally. After two years it became an independent training school. Later, the Wheelock School expanded it's curriculum, and, by 1939 had 325 students and 23 faculty.

With success of her class at Chauncey-Hall, Lucy soon became active in the kindergarten movement nationally. She served as president of the International Kindergarten Union (IKU) from 1895-1899. She chaired a committee appointed by the IKU to to prepare a definitive report on the status of kindergarten philosolphy and methods. During this time, she worked hard to unite the more liberal and conservative factions on this committe, but ultimately was unable to do so. She later became involved in the National Congress of Mothers, a forerunner of the Parent Teachers Assocation. In 1929 she was appointed to the education committee of the League of Nations.

Lucy was one of the first to apply kindergarten teaching methods to Sunday School classes. She taught classes throughout the 1880's and 90's, and became well known for her Sunday School teaching. She was soon asked to teach other Sunday School teachers. In these training classes, she showed how Froebels methods could be used to improve their teaching, and enhance the interest of the students. Her Saturday afternoon training class at the Primary Sunday Shool Union was very popular, and led to requests for her to speak at Sunday School teachers conventions nationwide.

Lucy wrote extensively throughout here career. Among her translated works were "Red-Letter Stories" (1884) and "Swiss Stories for Children" (1887), both translated from the writings of Johanna Spyri, author of "Heidi". She produced numerous stories with moral themes for children which were well read in her time, including "Allan's Thanksgiving", "Clifton's Lunch", "Cousin Ruth", and "A Lily's Mission". During her Sunday school years she published a weekly column "Hints to Teachers" in The Congregationalist, and edited a weekly Boston Suday school journal, The Child's Hour. In 1920 she published "Talks To Mothers" (with Elizabeth Colson), a book on the subject of child rearing, schooling, and the relationship between home and school.

She retired as director of the Wheelock School in 1939. The school was incorporated in that year, and in 1941 it became Wheelock College. Lucy Wheelock died in Boston, Massachusetts, on October 2, 1946.

Written by Roderick B. Sullivan, Nov 2001, updated Jan 2015

Notes and Sources

  1. "Wheelock College 100 Years, 1888/89-1988/89", edited by Elzabeth Ann Liddle, Copyright 1988, published by Wheelock College Office of Publications, Boston, Mass; the information in this biography relied heavily on an article in the publication entitled "Lucy Wheelock's Education and Vocation", by Dr. Barbar Beatty, Assistant Professor of Wellesley College.
  2. Encyclopedia of World Biography, Wheelock, Lucy