Alice Palmer was born on February 21, 1855 in Broome County, New York to James Warren Freeman and Elizabeth Josephine Freeman, both middle-class farmers in the Susquehanna River Valley. As a farm girl and the eldest of many siblings, Alice had many chores and responsibilities growing up, including taking care of dishes, dressing her siblings, and collecting eggs. Her early education began in a rural district school, where a young woman was paid to teach all grades in the area. But despite her humble education, Alice had a great deal of intellectual curiosity, teaching herself to read at the age of three and giving speeches, something she would become known for later in life.
In 1861, Alice’s father began studying medicine. He eventually left for Albany Medical School to obtain a medical degree and a license to practice. During that time, Alice’s mother, who was only 23, was left to manage the farm herself. This gave Alice even more responsibilities. She may have absorbed the idea of the importance of a woman being self-sufficient and economically secure during this period, as her mother and the rest of the family struggled to support themselves and her father through his medical studies. When Alice’s father returned from Albany, the family abandoned farming to move to Windsor, New York, where James Freeman established a medical practice. Alice attended the coeducational Windsor Academy, where she was taught classical subjects and earned awards for composition and oration.
Following graduation from Windsor Academy, Alice made the decision to attend college, which met with some resistance from her parents. Her father’s medical practice was far from lucrative, and although Alice was the eldest child, traditionally her brother would be the one sent to college. However, Alice was not to be deterred. She promised that she would use her education to help put her brother through college and to finance the education of her younger sisters. She would later come through on this promise, and more. During her last two years at the University of Michigan, her father’s investments in a speculative mining venture left him bankrupt and in debt. Rescuing him from his financial situation, she went on to support her brother and several of her other siblings throughout their lives.
It wasn’t easy for Alice to get the education she wanted. After she had first overcome her parents’ resistance to her college aspirations, the University of Michigan put her on a six-week trial period because she had performed poorly in the Greek and mathematics sections of their entrance examination. But Alice took this as a challenge. She underwent a strenuous summer of study, in which she hired tutors, studied with college-bound friends, and self-taught herself the subjects that challenged her. After matriculating, she needed to drop out for half of her junior year to earn money by teaching. She made up her missed courses during her senior year. But her hard work paid off. After Alice graduated from the University of Michigan, the founder of Wellesley college offered her positions as a professor of mathematics and Greek—the very subjects that had previously challenged her.
By 1881, Alice Palmer had become acting president of Wellesley college at only 26 years old. She was known for changing the curriculum to be more rigorous. She resigned only after contracting tuberculosis; the symptoms became too severe for her to continue working. Even with her poor health, she co-founded the Association of College Alumnae (later the American Association of University Women), served two terms as its president, and championed women’s university education throughout her later life. She became a member of the Massachusetts State Board of Education from 1889 to 1902, was the president of the Woman’s Education Association in Boston from 1891 to 1901, and was chief executive officer in the Association for Promoting Scientific Research by Women. She also served in several other positions advancing women’s education.
She met and married her husband, a Harvard philosophy professor named George Palmer, on December 23, 1887. In 1892, she became the first dean of the women’s department in the University of Chicago. During her time as Dean, she managed to double the amount of women enrolled in the university: from 24% to a nearly even 48%. She eventually died of a heart attack in Paris in 1902, at the young age of forty-seven. Despite her premature death, her tireless efforts to champion women’s postsecondary education have had a lasting impact on American universities.
George Herbert Palmer, The Life of Alice Freeman Palmer (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company,1908).
“Alice Freeman (Palmer),” Alice Freeman Palmer Correspondence.