Author: Caroline Littlewood
Mary Eliot (Dwight) Parkman served as President of the Industrial School for Girls from 1860 to 1862. Born January 23, 1821, Mary was the daughter of industrial pioneer and education reformer Edmund Dwight, and the granddaughter of shipping millionaire Samuel Eliot through her mother, Mary Harrison Eliot Dwight. She spent her early years in Boston and Chicopee, Massachusetts balancing the care of her younger sisters and chronically ill mother, the social responsibilities of the Boston elite, and a rigorous education in the humanities. These experiences fed her interest in health and sanitation reform and prepared her for a life of leadership.
In 1849, Mary Eliot Dwight wed Harvard graduate and medical doctor Samuel Parkman. They had two children, Henry (b. 1850) and Ellen Twisleton (b. 1853), before Samuel fatally contracted typhoid from a patient in 1854. Mary suffered another blow over the next couple years when her family’s money dwindled. To make ends meet, Mary followed the lead of fellow society woman Anna Cabot Jackson Lowell and opened a makeshift “school” in 1855. Young Brahmin boys filled her home parlor for lessons in the three R’s. In Early Memories, Henry Cabot Lodge fondly remembered Mrs. Parkman as “one of the cleverest and wisest persons…. She had both wit and humor, wide knowledge of men and books, and intense beliefs.” While Mary’s new occupation was considered respectable by her peers, she ended her lessons in 1859.
When the Industrial School for Girls opened in Winchester in 1853, Mary became Secretary of the Board. Her involvement only grew with her grief over Samuel’s death. In one letter, her sister Lizzie wrote that “if Mary can sit up or hold a pen she goes to work for Winchester,” which “commands her noblest energies.” Mary assumed the Presidency in 1860, which she held until her departure from the country. In this role, she vetted potential School employees and helped direct School affairs while also acting as “guardian” to three students at any one time. Mary departed for Europe in 1862 where she tended to her dying sister Ellen (Dwight) Twisleton in London. She returned in 1865 to improved family finances and philanthropic pursuits.
After a couple years as Vice President, Mary’s work with the Dorchester Industrial School for Girls was gradually supplanted by other endeavors. She served on the executive committee of the new American Social Science Association (ASSA), an organization devoted to “discussion of those questions relating to the sanitary condition of the people, the relief, employment and education of the poor, the prevention of crime, the amelioration of the criminal law, the discipline of prisons, the remedial treatment of the insane, and … numerous matters of statistical and philanthropic interest.” She became an officer of education and authored one report in which she noted that “no one of the ninety-six members of Boston’s School Committee was a woman.” The bulk of her work, however, was in the ASSA’s sanitation department.
Mary’s work in public health can be traced to the early years of the Civil War. She served as the Chairman of New England Women’s Auxiliary to the Sanitary Commission, an organization devoted to raising funds and supplies for the war effort by holding “Sanitary Fairs.” In 1873, Mary was recruited by Sarah Cabot Wheelwright to aid in the founding of a Training School for nurses at Massachusetts General Hospital. Mary had met Florence Nightingale while abroad and was eager to adapt Nightingale’s training methods. She believed that a training school would improve the quality of healthcare in the city while providing women with a means to support themselves. Mary worked with the Training School for the remainder of her life, even stepping in to nurse patients during the School’s infancy.
Mary spent the final years of her life in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts. She reviewed fiction for new periodical The Nation, a job she performed anonymously and failed to mention in her papers. In 1879, Mary died of heart disease at her Beacon Hill property. On the official record of her death, her occupation is “widow of Samuel.” But in her fifty-eight years, Mary Parkman published literary criticism, penned children’s poetry, translated foreign fiction, ran a boys’ school, headed the Industrial School for Girls, instituted a training school for nurses, and launched and championed various sanitation and education reform initiatives.