Mary Adams (educator)

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Portrait of Mary Electa Adams

Mary Electa Adams (November 10, 1823 – November 5, 1898) was a Canadian women's education reformer. In 2004, she was designated a Person of National Historic Significance by the Government of Canada.

Early life and career[edit]

Mary Electa Adams was born in Westbury, Lower Canada on November 10, 1823 to father Rufus Adams and mother Maria Hubbard. When the young Mary was two years old, her family moved to Acton, Upper Canada. Until 1840, Adams's education was given by her parents. In that year, Adams moved to Montpelier, Vermont to commence her formal education, but transferred to the Cobourg Ladies' Seminary in Upper Canada the following year, where she earned her diploma of mistress of liberal arts, staying there until 1847 as a teacher. In that year, Adams moved to Toronto when the school moved there to be renamed the Adelaide Academy, but left to take up the position of lady principal at Picton Academy the next year. In 1850, Adams left that position on the grounds of ill health, and moved to Michigan to become a school administrator. In 1854, Adams moved to Sackville, New Brunswick to take up the position of chief preceptress, the highest administrative role available to a woman in her school. Although not named as such, Adams was effectively the principal of the 'female branch' of her school, the Wesleyan Academy. Adams believed that women needed and deserved a rigorous academic program, and it was at Wesleyan Academy that she put these principles into place.[1]

Resignation and return[edit]

When Adams's father died in May 1856, Adams considered resigning from her position as chief preceptress, but her belief in "the cause of female education" kept her from doing so until 1857, when she returned home to care for her elderly mother for four years. In 1861, Adams returned to school administration, becoming the founding principal of the Wesleyan Female College in Hamilton, Ontario. Although her school faced financial problems in its early years, and she was forced to teach in a poorly-converted hotel building, Adams successfully transformed the college into a well-regarded academic institution, with a newspaper reporting her to be "the life of the institution" in June 1863.[1]

In 1868, Adams's mother died, and Adams left the Wesleyan Female College to travel with her sister and coworker, Augusta, in Italy. Upon Adams's return home, she settled in Cobourg, Ontario, opening the Brookhurst Academy in 1872. Adams's intention when founding the college was to enroll only university-bound students, to keep the school exclusively for students in the elite academic class. Many Brookhurst students took classes at the nearby Victoria College, and in 1877 the first diploma of mistress of English literature was awarded jointly by the two schools. In 1880, financial problems forced Brookhurst Academy to close.[1]

Final years and legacy[edit]

Following her time at Brookhurst, Adams moved to Ontario Ladies' College to become its lady principal. However, Adams did not appreciate having to work at a school she regarded to be Brookhurst's major competitor, and engaged in some conflict with her superior. In 1892, at nearly 70 years of age, Adams retired from teaching, and spent her remaining years establishing cattle ranches in Morley, Alberta with her sister Augusta and nephew Lucius. On November 5, 1898, Adams died while visiting relatives in Toronto.[1]

Adams's work furthered the cause of women's education in British North America and, although she did not have students graduating with full bachelor's degrees while lady principal at her various places of employment, her teaching methods were modelled by others and have had a profound impact on gender equality in education. In 2004, Adams was designated a Person of National Historic Significance.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e Adams, Mary Electa - Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Retrieved October 28, 2010.