Lucy Downing, Puritan Wife and Harvard Founder

In the spring of 1636, Lucy Downing wrote a letter from England to her older brother, John Winthrop, six years after 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.


Portrait of John Winthrop, American Antiquarian Society.

Later that year, the Massachusetts colony’s legislature voted to give 400 pounds to establish a college in Newtowne, renamed Cambridge two years later. 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. He was a rich, childless minister, and 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.’

Lucy Downing

Also 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.


Colonial engraving, Harvard College

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.

lucy-downing-georgeSon George graduated from Harvard in 1642, returned to England, made a fortune, became Sir George Downing and built a street in London where the prime minister lives.

Who Gets Credit for Founding Harvard?

Lucy Downing had a champion in none other than Harriet Hanson, the Lowell mill girl who became an acclaimed author and leader of the women’s suffrage movement.


Harriet Hanson Robinson

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 Lucy Downing was ignored by history as she was by her son George. When Emanuel Downing died in 1658, he left his wife in straitened circumstances.

She 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 and 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 was. 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.

John Harvard

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 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.

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  1. Pingback: Nathaniel Eaton, the Puritan Who Made Harvard Disappear for a Year - New England Historical Society

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