In the spring of 1636, Lucy Downing wrote a letter from England to her older brother, John Winthrop. Six years earlier he had led a group of Puritans to Massachusetts.
Lucy and her family wanted to join them, but she was reluctant because her son George couldn’t finish his studies in New England. “You have yet no societies nor means of that kind for the education of youths in learning,” she wrote.
She suggested Winthrop establish a college in the New World:
It would make me goe far nimbler to New England, if God should call me to it, than otherwise I should, and I believe a colledge would put no small life into the plantation.
Later that year, the Massachusetts colony’s legislature — which included John Winthrop — voted to give 400 pounds to establish a college in Newtowne, later renamed Cambridge. The lawmakers dreaded ‘to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches, when our present ministers shall lie in the dust.”
Shortly thereafter, John Harvard died. A rich, childless minister, he bequeathed to the ‘infant seminary’ 780 pounds – half his estate. The other half went to his wife. He also gave the school 400 scholarly volumes from his library.
The grateful Legislature in 1638 ordered the school yet to be built should be called ‘Harvard.’
In 1638, Lucy Downing and her family sailed to the Massachusetts Bay Colony on the Thomas and Francis so they could lead spiritual and righteous lives.
Like her brother, Lucy Downing was a well-educated Puritan who gave up a comfortable life in England for an uncertain future in a wilderness. She was 37, mother of seven children and married to a respected barrister. In England they had maids and a summer house in the country.
They settled in Salem, built a farm and had more children. Emanuel represented the town in the Legislature and made frequent trips back to England.
Son George graduated from Harvard in 1642, returned to England and made a fortune. He became Sir George Downing and built a street in London where the prime minister now lives.
Who Gets Credit for Founding Harvard?
Whether Lucy Downing’s earnest plea to her brother…for a school in which to educate her son, prompted him, or hurried his attention thus early to act in this direction, we cannot now tell. It is as the history says, ‘certainly a remarkable coincidence.’
Hanson complained that historians ignored Lucy Downing was ignored by history, as did her son George. When Emanuel Downing died in 1658, she moved to London. She soon found herself in straitened circumstances.
Lucy wrote to one of her sons:
I am now att ten pounds a yeare for my chamber, and three pounde for my servants’ wages, and have to extend the other ten pounde a yeare to accomodat for our meat and drink, and for my clothing and all other nessessaries I am much to seek, and more your brother Georg will not hear of for me, and he says that it is only covetousness that makes me ask more.
Her nephew John Winthrop the Younger, governor of Connecticut, got wind of her distress. He then begged George to help ‘aunt Lucy in her tyme of age and infirmity.’ George replied he couldn’t do any more for his mother than he already had. Lucy Downing died in 1679, at the age of 78.
Harriet Hanson compared Lucy’s treatment by her son George with Harvard’s failure to admit women.
Harriet Hanson wasn’t the only person to credit Lucy Downing with founding Harvard.
John Harvard had many detractors who call it a myth that he founded Harvard College. In 1934, the Harvard Corporation’s secretary tried to straighten the record. He did it with a letter that said there is no myth to be destroyed:
If the founding of a university must be dated to a split second of time, then the founding of Harvard should perhaps be fixed by the fall of the president’s gavel in announcing the passage of the vote of October 28, 1636. But if the founding is to be regarded as a process rather than as a single event [then John Harvard, by virtue of his bequest “at the very threshold of the College’s existence and going further than any other contribution made up to that time to ensure its permanence”] is clearly entitled to be considered a founder. The General Court … acknowledged the fact by bestowing his name on the College. This was almost two years before the first President took office and four years before the first students were graduated.
This story was updated in 2021.