She was educated at Girton College, Cambridge, where she later became the Tutor in history. In 1893 she became the first female lecturer at the University of Cambridge Local Examinations & Lectures Syndicate. She was the first woman to receive the degree of Doctor of Letters (Litt. D.) from the University of Dublin, under ad eundem arrangements (see steamboat ladies).
McArthur died of illness in 1927. She never married and had no children. A monetary endowment created by her will at the University of Cambridge, the Ellen McArthur Fund, has supported lectures, research studentships and other awards relating to economic history.
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