As teacher, biologist, archaeologist, St. Albans native broke new ground

by Guy Page

If Indiana Jones had been a woman, she’d be someone like archaeologist and educator Lucy Langdon Williams Wilson – a St. Albans native and Castleton grad.

According to the Castleton University website, “the Lucy Langdon Williams Wilson Scholarship was created in 2017 by Castleton’s Women’s History Month Committee. It is given to a student who has shown an academic interest in understanding the nature of women’s lives and experiences, and gender as it relates to differences in power and social change.

“Lucy Langdon Williams Wilson, who was born in St. Albans, and raised by her grandmother in nearby Rutland, attended Castleton Seminary in its final years before continuing at the State Normal School at Castleton in 1878. She was just 13 years old at the time. She went on to earn her Ph.d. at University of Pennsylvania, which was a rare achievement for a woman at that time. Wilson also studied at Cornell, Harvard, University of Chicago, and Woods Hole Marine Laboratory on Cape Cod.

“Wilson served as the head of the Department of Biology at Philadelphia Normal School and became an internationally recognized authority on teaching biology. She wrote several books and articles on teaching, nature studies, domestic science, history, and travel. As an archaeologist in the southwest in 1915 and 1916, she was the first American woman to excavate her own sites.”

There’s more on her Pennsylvania years from a 2013 Pennsylvania Historical Society blog post by Cary Hutto:

Dr. Lucy Wilson—an internationally acclaimed advocate of progressive education—was perhaps best known for her role as founder and principal of the South Philadelphia High School for Girls. Born Lucy Langdon Williams in Vermont in 1864, Wilson had an innate drive for education. As a “stunt” as she called it, Wilson took and passed the examination for a teacher’s license at age 10. Her family moved to Philadelphia where she attended Girls High School and then graduated from the Philadelphia Normal School in 1883.

Wilson became the head of the biology department at the Normal School, and went on to become principal and teacher at the private all-boys Rugby Academy; teacher of mathematics at Girls High; and founder and principal of the city’s first evening high school (for working students) and of the War Emergency High School, a forerunner of today’s summer schools.

In 1916 Wilson founded and became the principal of South Philadelphia High School for Girls, where she remained for the rest of her public school career. Here she introduced “laboratory methods” for the teaching of all subjects, not just science. Wilson encouraged teachers to apply her theory of individualization of instruction, which was based on each student’s individual level of learning and interest. Wilson initiated a scholarship fund to enable low-income students to complete high school, providing money, food, medical and dental care, and other assistance to impoverished students and their families. She was the first woman to receive the Philadelphia Award in 1933, and she retired as principal in 1934.

It was during her time in Philadelphia that her portrait was painted by Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins, painter, photographer, sculptor, and fine arts educator. According to a website dedicated to his work, Eakins “was one of the greatest American painters of his time, an innovating teacher, and an uncompromising realist. He was also the most neglected major painter of his era in the United States.”

Wilson’s archeological excavations – as well as details of her family life – are treated in this El Palacio blog post, “They Also Dug:”

“Although married and with a doctorate in education from the University of Pennsylvania, Lucy Langdon Wilson (1864–1937) depended on her husband only to get her foot in the door. 

“She had always been intrigued by archaeology. This interest turned into a passion after she and William toured northern New Mexico with Edgar Lee Hewett in 1914 as members of the Archaeological Institute of America. 

“Described in newspaper accounts as an “indefatigable woman explorer,” she immediately began to look for an archaeological site to excavate, in part to produce an exhibition at the Philadelphia Commercial Museum. 

“On Hewett’s advice, she settled on the area of Otowi near Bandelier. Although she alone would be—and was—in charge (William did not accompany her), permits for her three summers of excavations were issued jointly with his name appearing first. Again following Hewett’s advice, she hired experienced San Ildefonso men as excavators, and archaeologist Wesley Bradfield as field officer. Bradley often cared for Wilson’s small son, a unique gender reversal for the time. The Pueblo workmen dug efficiently and helped Wilson interpret the results. 

“Technical reports from the work were submitted under Lucy and William’s names as permit holders, but the resulting articles, including three in El Palacio, were written by Lucy Wilson alone.”

A video with 2021 $2000 scholarship award winner Adrianna Maher of Burlington and the Eakins portrait is featured on the Castleton U. website. 

Categories: History

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