An American at Newnham: M. A. Willcox (1856-1953)

Mary Alice Willcox with class and skeletons, Wellesley College Archives Image Gallery

Since 1871 American women have been crossing the Atlantic for the chance to study at Newnham College, Cambridge; many later became influential figures in education in the U.S.A during the late 19th and early 20th century. Helen Magill White was the first woman in the United States to earn a Ph.D., and described her three years studying Classics at Newnham from 1878-1881 as the happiest time of her life. Alice and Anne Longfellow, the daughters of the poet, spent a year at Newnham from 1883 to 1884: Alice had played an active role in establishing Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1879. But perhaps the most influential American educator during this period was Mary Alice Willcox, whose three years studying natural sciences at Newnham from 1880 to 1883 led to her establishing the first zoology department at Wellesley College, Massachusetts, and making it one of the best in the country.

‘As I arrived, North Hall was just opening’ M.A. Willcox wrote in the 1930s, recalling her first days at Newnham in 1880. ‘I remember that we students, at our first breakfast, had to carry down the chairs from our bedrooms.’ Newnham College had begun in 1871 with a handful of women living in a rented house on Regent Street; in 1880, thanks to fund-raising and appeals, its second residential building had been built and was now presided over by Henry and Eleanor Sidgwick. Willcox was 24 years old and had travelled from Boston to study what today would be termed natural sciences at Cambridge. Previously she had worked as a schoolteacher and attended biology classes at M.I.T., then known as ‘the Boston Tech’. With her father’s encouragement, she spent her summers studying molluscs and other sea creatures at Alexander Agassiz‘s private marine laboratory in Newport, Rhode Island. Agassiz, a marine biologist and oceanographer, should not be confused with his father Louis Agassiz, the naturalist and geologist who in the early 1860s argued so vehemently against Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859). By contrast, Alexander’s transatlantic friendship with Darwin was as unruffled as a calm sea on a summer’s day: the two men corresponded about barnacles and coral reefs, and in 1872 Darwin sent him the latest edition of the Origin.

Along with his stepmother, Elizabeth Cabot Agassiz, Alexander Agassiz was a keen supporter of women’s higher education, and he encouraged his bright young student Mary Alice to take her studies further. In 1879 he introduced her to Henry and Pauline Durant, who had co-founded Wellesley College for women in 1870. Like Newnham, Wellesley was expanding and needed suitably qualified female faculty members to teach the sciences. The Durants offered Willcox the zoology professorship on the understanding that first she should gain a degree (or its equivalent) at a top university. So, with Agassiz’s encouragement, she applied for a place at Newnham. 

During the 1870s, the culture of scientific study in Britain had shifted from a ‘gentlemanly pursuit’ of experiments carried out at home to properly equipped and supervised laboratories. In Charles Darwin: the Power of Place (Pimlico, 2003) Janet Browne describes how ‘Darwin’s study and greenhouse looked increasingly amateurish’, compared to the large laboratory at South Kensington that Thomas Huxley supervised from 1871 to 1878 (Browne, 468). From the beginning, Huxley’s innovative courses of laboratory teaching were open to women schoolteachers as well as men: ‘indeed, the solitary schoolmistress among thirty-eight men took that first term’s prize’, Adrian Desmond writes in the ODNB. ‘This yearly summer course, transmitted via the teachers to the new schools, became the foundation of the modern discipline of biology.’ One of Huxley’s demonstrators in London was Michael Foster, who had trained as a medical doctor before specializing in physiology. He accepted a fellowship at Trinity College Cambridge in 1871 on the understanding that his laboratory-based biology courses would be accessible to all students across the University, including from the new women’s colleges at Girton and Newnham.

Previously, botany and zoology were treated separately at Cambridge, but, influenced by Huxley, Foster believed that all branches of biology were united, ‘and that the Darwinian theory of evolution could be applied across the plant and animal kingdoms’, as Susannah Gibson writes in The Spirit of Inquiry (OUP, 2019). ‘Foster’s new syllabus saw first-year students studying elementary biology while second years studied practical physiology and third years studied advanced physiology’ (Gibson, 183). Soon Foster was attracting forty to fifty students each term to his practical biology classes, and in 1879 a new physiology laboratory opened on the New Museums Site.

Undergraduates hard at work in Newnham’s Old Labs, NEWNHAM COLLEGE

Despite the greater space and Foster’s best intentions, numbers of women students were still restricted at the University’s laboratories, so both Girton and Newnham colleges used their own. Newnham’s ‘Old Labs’ were built in 1879 at ‘a respectful distance’ from its residential buildings to avoid fires and other lab-based mishaps. Originally intended for the study of chemistry, for its first five years the Old Labs were used to study a variety of scientific disciplines. Mary Alice Willcox describes being taught Foster’s biology course in ‘our little stone-floored laboratory at Newnham’ using Huxley and Henry Newell Martin’s A Course of Practical Instruction in Elementary Biology (1875). She had come to England for ‘a definite purpose’ – to prepare Wellesley’s first zoology course – and during the three years she spent in Cambridge she took only courses in anatomy, biology and physiology, taught by the embryologist Frank Balfour and the anatomist Joseph Lister as well as Foster.

Happy as Willcox was in her studies, Newnham’s Old Labs must have seemed a long way from Newport. ‘I still quiver with cold as I remember those raw days in the laboratory barely tempered by a little grate fire in one corner’, she recalled. Willcox was a hardworking and remarkably focussed student who chose not to prepare for the Tripos, the University’s final exams, as Cambridge did not award women degrees at that time. (Later, she would move to Europe and take her Ph.D. in just one and a half years at the University of Zurich.) But she probably joined in Newnham’s celebrations when, during her first year, the Senate passed the ‘Three Graces’ in May 1881, formally allowing female students to sit for the Tripos on the same conditions as the men. At their home in Kent, Emma and Charles Darwin, who were friends with Newnham’s first Principal, Anne Clough, were delighted to hear about ‘the triumph of the Ladies at Cambridge’. At around the same time Agassiz was keeping Darwin up to date with his work on coral reefs in the Gulf of Mexico. ‘It was very good of you to write to me from Tortugas’ Darwin told him. ‘I always feel much interested in hearing what you are about, and in reading your many discoveries’ (Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 13145,” accessed on 14 March 2021).

Charles and Emma’s son Horace and his wife Ida had supported the fledgling Newnham College since they moved to Cambridge as newlyweds in 1880. In the weeks leading up to the 1881 vote, Ida had written impassioned letters urging their M.A. friends and relations to return to Cambridge to cast their vote at the Senate in favour of the women’s right to take the exams. She had made several friends at Newnham (including Anne Clough, Helen Gladstone and Eleanor Sidgwick) and she also reached out to the students to make them feel more at home. Willcox recalled Mrs Darwin as ‘a most sweet woman’ who was only a little older than her, and ‘divined that I was lonely and made me free of her house.’ Perhaps Mary Alice was leading the life Ida would have chosen, if her own father had permitted her to go to university as she wished.

In 1882 and 1883, after a hard day in the lab, Willcox would cycle over to Ida and Horace’s house at 66 Hills Road to play on the floor with their infant son Erasmus. In later years she went back to visit the family and enjoyed seeing Erasmus growing up. But in late October 1881, just before he was born, Ida sent Mary Alice a more formal invitation to dinner. Her parents-in-law were coming to Cambridge for a visit, and she knew that Willcox would want to meet the great man whose teachings she knew so well, via her mentor Agassiz.

It would be one of Charles Darwin’s last trips away from his home in Kent. His health was growing worse, and died just six months later. One of his reasons for travelling to Cambridge that autumn was to see in situ the portrait that the Cambridge Philosophical Society had commissioned of him in 1879. Emma Darwin was not impressed when in October 1881 they at last saw William Blake Richmond’s painting of Darwin, wearing his rented doctoral scarlet robes. ‘We went to see the red picture & I thought it quite horrid, so fierce and so dirty’ she told their daughter Henrietta later. ‘However it is under a glass & v. high up so no one can see it’ (quoted in Browne, 451). Today the portrait hangs in Cambridge University’s Zoology Department, and can be seen on Art UK’s website here.

More enjoyable, it seems, was Charles Darwin’s dinner conversation with the bright young American woman who worked with his friend Agassiz. In her recollections, the star-struck Willcox regretted that she was ‘too careless to write an account’ of everything Darwin said that night, but she did manage to make him laugh. ‘When he sat down beside me, he asked, as everybody in England had a fashion of doing, if I knew anyone in St Louis’, she recalled. ‘My answer – that St Louis was farther from my home in Boston than London was from Constantinople – amused him greatly.’ The great naturalist, who knew so much about barnacles, coral reefs and the plant and animal kingdom, had a less sure grasp of North American geography.

After returning to Wellesley College in 1883, Willcox set about developing the zoology department in the basement of College Hall. Finances were limited, but her time in Newnham’s Old Labs had taught her that excellent work could be done in less than perfect conditions. Her courses included embryology and fieldwork in both freshwater and marine invertebrates, and she was particularly proud of her course on the anatomy of the cat, thought to be the first in the United States. Influenced by Michael Foster’s teaching, she introduced laboratory physiology, with sessions four times a week (at Harvard, physiology was taught only on one afternoon a year). During her tenure from 1883 until 1910, the reputation of zoology at Wellesley was ‘far in advance of anything at Harvard or Yale’. Mary Alice Willcox was a convinced Darwinian who insisted in teaching her students about evolution, despite the disapproval of New England society.

Willcox’s only book is a pocket guide to New England birds, published in 1895, and her unpublished manuscript on molluscs has never been found. It’s likely that it was with her personal library and other papers which were stored in the Zoological Museum and Library that she founded at Wellesley, which were destroyed in the College Hall fire of 1914. Although M.A. Willcox’s name is not well known, because of her thoroughness and expertise, her scientific papers are still widely cited today and she has been described as ‘an outstanding malacologist and naturalist’ by David R. Lindberg, Professor Emeritus of Integrative Biology at U.C. Berkley.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, all rights reserved

Sources: M.A. Willcox’s recollections ‘The Sidgwicks in residence’ is included in A Newnham Anthology ed. Ann Philips (CUP, 1979). For Darwin-Agassiz letters see Darwin Correspondence Project website; Ladies in the Laboratory? American and British Women in Science, 1800-1900 (1998) Mary R.S. Creese; Adrian Desmond, ‘Huxley, Thomas Henry (1825–1895)’ ODNB, accessed on 14 March 2021; David R Lindberg, ‘Mary Alice Willcox 1856-1953’; Papers of M.A. Willcox, Wellesley College archives website. My thanks to Anne Thomson, former Newnham archivist. The new Newnham anthology, Walking on the Grass, Dancing in the Corridors: Newnham at 150 (Profile 2021) ed. Gill Sutherland and Kate Williams, includesnot only those who joined the community as students, but also those who came to work in it, translated from student to senior member, or met the College for the first time as they came to teach, to administer, to garden, to cook, to nurse’.

5 thoughts on “An American at Newnham: M. A. Willcox (1856-1953)

  1. joulesbarham says:

    This is a lovely post! I was at Selwyn, but had friends at Newnham, so have walked the long corridor that the college was known for in the early 1980s at least. The American angle was new to me, as well as the Darwin element. I like the idea that even he rented his gown…


  2. Tamsin Wimhurst says:

    So interesting to read about this history and the pioneering women students of science. The visitors centre at the David Parr House has a kitchen made from the benches that came from the old lab at Newnham. I will now picture Mary in my mind when I put on the kettle and what the wood beneath my cup has seen in its previous life.


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