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Life Story: Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps (1793-1884)

Promoting Women in Science

The story of a leader in science and education.

Portrait of Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps
“Portrait of Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps”, in Sarah J. Hale, Woman’s record; or, Sketches of all distinguished women, from “the beginning” till A.D.1850. : Arranged in four eras. With selections from female writers of every age. Hathi Trust.
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Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps was born on July 15, 1793, in Berlin, Connecticut. She was the seventeenth and youngest child of Lydia and Samuel Hart. The Hart family lived on a farm. All the children were expected to work on the farm. But Lydia and Samuel also valued religious faith, education, and intellectual curiosity, which they instilled in their children.

Lydia was an amateur anatomist. She studied the animals she prepared for family meals and applied what she learned to care for the human body. Her father frequently invited traveling preachers and other intellectuals to his home to engage in lively debates. He encouraged his children to participate. Almira’s older sister, Emma Hart Willard, was an advocate for women’s education. It is no surprise that Almira developed a passion for learning and education. 

Almira began teaching at the age of 16. In 1814, she opened a boarding school for young women in her hometown. In 1816, she was appointed principal of a school in Sandy Hill, New York. This promotion shows that people saw Almira as a leader who could set standards for an entire educational community. 

Almira married Simeon Lincoln in 1817. As a woman of faith, Almira subscribed to the common early American belief that married women should devote themselves to caring for their home and family. She resigned from her position at the Sandy Hill school to be a housewife. She gave birth to three children before her husband passed away in 1823.

Like many widows in early America, Almira needed to find a way to support herself and her children after the death of her husband. She accepted a teaching position at the Troy Female Seminary, a school founded by her sister Emma. Once again, Almira’s talents as an educational leader were apparent to everyone around her. By 1829, she was the vice principal of the school. 

Almira shared what she learned with her students, inspiring a new generation of women scientists.

During her time at the Troy Female Seminary, Almira studied botany and chemistry under the guidance of scientist Amos Eaton. Amos thought women could learn as much as men. He actively promoted the inclusion of women in scientific work. Almira shared what she learned with her students, inspiring a new generation of women scientists. 

Early in her studies, Almira realized that there were very few introductory textbooks about botany. She decided to write one herself. In 1829, she published Familiar Lectures on Botany. The book was a huge success and sold over 275,000 copies in the next 50 years. 

Almira married John Phelps in 1831. She once again resigned from teaching to taking on the responsibilities of running her home. But her new husband was very proud of her talents. He encouraged her not to give up her work entirely. She continued to write textbooks that made the study of the natural sciences and philosophy more accessible for students. She published 13 books in her lifetime.

With John’s encouragement, Almira returned to working in schools in 1838. She was appointed the principal of a new school in West Chester, Pennsylvania. But her time there was not happy. Almira believed that a well-rounded education must include religious instruction. She thought that her faith made her a better scientist and that her scientific discoveries deepened her faith. Almira tried to add religious instruction to her new school’s curriculum, but the school’s founder would not allow it. Her husband convinced her to instead open her own school in Rahway, New Jersey, in 1839. In 1841, Almira’s fame as an educator had spread so far that she was invited to become the principal of the Patapsco Female Institute (PFI) in Maryland. Eventually, John and Almira closed their Rahway school and took over the management of PFI.

Almira worked at PFI until she retired from teaching in 1856. For the rest of her career, she was an outspoken advocate for women’s education. Personal experience taught her that a good education gave women a way to support themselves and their families. But Almira did not support the emerging movement for women’s suffrage. She believed that men should take responsibility for running the country and women for running the home. She believed that the kind of education she provided prepared her students to be outstanding Republican mothers. She felt that her students should not desire anything more than that.

In 1859, Almira was the third woman ever elected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. This was a group dedicated to promoting scientific study and education for the betterment of humankind. Her election was a testament to her work revolutionizing science education and promoting women in science. For the rest of her life, Almira revised her textbooks with the help of her daughters and gave lectures in schools and scientific institutions around the country. She passed away on her birthday at the age of 91.

Vocabulary

  • anatomist: A person who studies bodies and how they work.
  • boarding school: A place where students attend school and live.
  • botany: The study of plants.
  • preacher: A person who gives speeches on religious topics.
  • Republican Mother: A term historians use to describe the role women were expected to play in the Federal period.
  • seminary: An institution of higher education.

Discussion Questions

  • Why was Almira able to find so much success in the fields of education and science? 
  • How did Almira feel about women’s roles and education in the early United States? What does this reveal about attitudes toward women at the time?
  • Why is Almira’s story an important chapter in the history of women in STEM?
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Themes

AMERICAN CULTURE; SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND MEDICINE

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