As the first woman supervisor of the Boston Public Schools, Lucretia Crocker (1829-86) pioneered the discovery method of teaching mathematics and the natural sciences during her decade-long tenure, which began with her appointment in 1876. Earlier, in 1873, she was among the first women elected to the Boston School Committee, and a strong advocate for higher education for women.
A native of Barnstable, Massachusetts on Cape Cod, Lucretia Crocker was born in 1829 to Henry and Lydia E. (Ferris) Crocker. She was educated in the Boston Public Schools, and attended the State Normal School in West Newton, Massachusetts. Established by Horace Mann, it was the first state-supported school dedicated to training teachers in America. Lucretia graduated in 1850 at the age of twenty-one, but stayed on to teach courses in geography, math, and general science until ill health forced her to resign in 1854. (One year earlier, in 1853, the Normal School, which had originally been founded in 1839 in Lexington, Massachusetts, moved to Framingham. Today, this school is Framingham State College and a building constructed in 1886, Crocker Hall, is named for Lucretia Crocker.)
Lucretia Crocker left Massachusetts for Yellow Springs, Ohio where she accepted a teaching position at Antioch College whose first president, Horace Mann, had not only pioneered normal schools in Massachusetts but was expanding his vision nationally. He is considered the “Father of American Education.” His wife, Mary Peabody Mann, the sister of the editor and publisher Elizabeth Peabody, was herself a teacher and a strong supporter of her husband. At Antioch, Lucretia Crocker taught mathematics and astronomy until she returned to Boston in 1859 to care for her parents and to teach botany and mathematics at the Newbury Street School in Boston’s Back Bay.
As an educator, Lucretia Crocker was deeply engaged in “nature study,” a popular movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that emphasized first-hand knowledge of nature and its beauty, not simply an analytical understanding of the natural world. Led by Anna Botsford Comstock and Liberty Hyde Bailey, nature study was centered at Cornell University where Anna and her husband, John Henry Comstock, taught. One of the movement’s proponents, the great Harvard University naturalist Louis Agassiz, coined the phrase, “study nature, not books.”
For the rest of her career as a teacher or administrator, Lucretia Crocker focused her attention on improving science teaching and bringing scientific knowledge to the general public. With Ellen Swallow Richards, the first woman to graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), she developed a new course for the Boston Public Schools in mineralogy from 1881 to 1882. She oversaw sweeping improvements to how science was taught in Boston, and supported the Boston Natural History Society’s Teachers’ School of Science (1870), which was designed to improve the teaching of science. When funds for the Teachers’ School lagged, Lucretia recruited her friend, philanthropist, and Louis Agassiz’s daughter, Pauline Agassiz Shaw, to help. (Today, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, through the Lucretia Crocker Foundation, supports Teaching Fellows in science education.)
From 1873 to 1876, Lucretia Crocker headed the science department of the Society to Encourage Studies at Home or, as it was called by its members, “The Silent University.” Founded in 1873 by Anna Eliot Ticknor, the daughter of a Harvard professor and one of the founders of the Boston Public Library, the Society was “a network of women teaching women by mail,” according to the historian Harriet F. Bergmann. “It was a groundbreaking scheme,” Bergmann explains, “designed to draw on the intellectual attainments of Ticknor’s leisured, wealthy friends to further the education of women throughout the country. The means were simple: an enlightened, modern curriculum; a lending library; and a warm correspondence between woman teacher and woman learner. Ticknor and her friends wanted to give away what men had long refused to allow women to buy: a liberal education.”
The nine women who first signed on as correspondent-educators were Lucretia Crocker, Elizabeth Cary Agassiz (who founded Radcliffe College, and whose daughter was Pauline Agassiz Shaw), Elizabeth Cleveland, Ellen Hooper Gurney, Katherine Peabody Loring, Ellen F. Mason, Elizabeth Perkins, Anna Eliot Ticknor (the founder), and her mother, who was also named Anna Eliot Ticknor. Later, Ellen Swallow Richards became involved.
Some of Lucretia Crocker’s other activities included the American Unitarian Association for whom she selected books for the Sunday school library. She was also a member of the committee on teachers for the New England Freedman’s Aid Society, traveling to the south in 1869 to tour freedmen’s schools. She served on the executive committee of the Boston School for Deaf Mutes, which helped train teachers to work with the deaf, and she founded the Women’s Education Association in 1872 to support women in the sciences. WEA’s first laboratory opened in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Later, in conjunction with the Boston Society of Natural History, they relocated the lab to Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where cutting edge scientific and environmental work continues today.
The two books Lucretia Crocker produced during her lifetime were Our World, a geography text she co-authored with Mary L. Hall in 1864, and Methods of Teaching Geography: Notes on Lessons (1883).
The same year that Lucretia Crocker was appointed as the first woman supervisor of the Boston Public Schools, 1876, she was elected an associate member of the Boston Society of Natural History. Professor Hyatt of Harvard, in a posthumous tribute to her presented before the Society noted, “Miss Lucretia Crocker, in the course of a few brief years of public life, won her way to the respectful consideration of every man with who she came in contact, on account of the purely impersonal and professional soundness of her mind and judgment … She was also deeply interested in the progress of the Museum and had fully entered into and sympathized with its plan of work. Her power and influence were very large. She had gained the confidence of many persons and was well known to the public … one thing has seemed very evident, even to me, that it was certainly largely, if not almost wholly, due to her, that natural history has assumed so prominent a place in the [Boston public schools] curriculum.”
In 1880, Lucretia Crocker was elected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a remarkable achievement for a woman, and for someone who was not herself a scientist.
Ellen Swallow Richards, who was a scientist, said of her, “Miss Crocker, while not a specialist, had the rare quality of mind which permitted a wide acquaintance with various branches of elementary sciences and a judicial balancing of the claims of each. It was this faculty which made her so well qualified to suggest to specialists appropriate ways of teaching science from the educational standpoint and not from the technical or professional one … Her judgment as to the essential points in any science which could be made of value to children and youth as a part of their education, was almost unerring … I think it may truthfully be said that no educational work of public importance has been undertaken in Boston since 1871, without Miss Crocker’s interest and counsel.”
Richards concluded, “We have lost not only a friend, but an inspiration.”
- Bonnie Hurd Smith