1851 - 1911

Mary Jane Cragin

Mary Jane Cragin, an innovative teacher of geometry, natural philosophy and astronomy, was hired by Caroline Cutler Metcalf, who wished the Seminary to have the advantages of the latest ideas in pedagogy. Miss Cragin had graduated from Bridgewater Normal School (now Bridgewater State University), and Metcalf always tried to have at least one graduate of the Normal School among Wheaton’s faculty.

Known to her students as “Miss Why,” Cragin taught mathematics, natural science, mental philosophy and general literature from 1851 to 1858 and 1867 to 1868. Over the years, she developed a technique of teaching geometry without a textbook, and National Teachers’ Monthly lauded her as “a woman who came as near the ideal of true teacher… as any we have known, possessing a combination of qualities so rare that the possession of them by a single individual is hardly credible.” Her technique made each student responsible for thinking through and solving mathematics problems on her own. This method was continued by the math instructors who followed Cragin.

Ella Fisher Luther, class of 1870, wrote of her days in Miss Cragin’s class:

We each had a blank book and were first given definitions, axioms, etc. A problem was put on the blackboard, we copied it in our blank book, and if we did not solve it the first day, we were not marked for it, but after it was once explained in the class, we were, and each day a new proposition was given…. The course would have been called severe, but we had an exceptional teacher and I loved it.”

Some of the phrases applied to Cragin include “very intense,” “genial and kindly,” with “full and ready sympathy,” possessed of “utter simplicity and honesty,” of “indomitable and persevering industry,” with “perennial cheerfulness and patience,” leading a life of “continual serene, patient labor, undisturbed by the full share of the ills of life that fell to her lot.”

She was possessed of “clearness and thoroughness” in “her intellectual processes,” and “she gathered up knowledge with an intense avidity.” “She was quick and silent in movement.” She lived in an “atmosphere of quiet joy.”

Her self-confidence, the result of long experience and careful thought, never degenerated into an unwillingness to accept new truths, even when they might conflict with her own conclusions; her energy never became roughness or thoughtlessness; her criticism never descended to the level of faultfinding, and her praise was never unmeaning.”

A French student wrote of Miss Cragin, “I owe more to Miss Cragin than to any other person in the world. She taught me how to work, and I have always marveled at her power to interest and inspire.”

Another alumna wrote:

Miss Cragin’s own earnestness as she insisted on independent work in Mathematics bore fruit in making her pupils earnest women. All will remember the piercing look in her pleasant eyes which accompanied her constant question, ‘Why?’ The habit of truthful reasoning so thoroughly formed in her classes, became part of the character of her pupils. She made mathematics an inspiration. It was the favorite Wheaton study in her day.”

Harriet E. Paine, class of 1869, wrote that Miss Cragin was a teacher of real genius, who:

put the department of mathematics — always an important one in the school — on such a solid basis that there was hardly a girls’ school in the country whose work could compare with it; and through Miss Cragin’s pupils, who succeeded her, the high standards then prevailing became permanent in the Seminary.

Kate Upson Clark 1869, Wheaton trustee, remembered Cragin saying, “You mustn’t lose a minute. You must be busy every second. Are you in earnest? If you are not in earnest, you will never get anywhere,” and “we cannot miss an opportunity of studying a fine picture, or of hearing good music. We must be watchful that no beauty of sky or cloud, of tree or flower, is passed unheeded.”

Beloved by her students, Miss Cragin frequently took them for walks in the Wheaton Woods, and the path became known as “Lady Cragin’s Walk.”

Julia Osgood noted Cragin’s abilities, as well as her varied academic interests, which included general literature, music, and art:

She was a woman of versatility and ripe culture. She was clear and masterful in psychology. She was my best teacher in mathematics — she was my best teacher in whatever she taught me. I studied mathematical astronomy with her, and the heavens since then have been one of my richest sources of pleasure. With her I spent my first night-watch, tired and somewhat skeptical, awaiting the shower of the Leonides; and the shooting meteors of that night were so brilliant and tumultuous and multitudinous that it stands apart among my heavenly experiences.

General literature with Miss Cragin was in itself a liberal education. One New Year’s Day… she rendered memorable by reading to us Robert Browning’s poem, “Pippa Passes.” Other women might have read it to us at Christmas or Easter; Miss Cragin alone would be sure to do so on the day of days, the day the poem celebrated. What she brought to us outside of our studies was amazing.

No one person has ever done so much for me in regard to the understanding of music. She read to a little group of girls, of whom I was one, a critical estimate of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, published in the “St. Louis Journal of Speculative Philosophy.” When we had read and discussed the Essay, Miss Cragin arranged to have an accomplished pianist come to Norton and play the Sonata for us. I was never so prepared as then to receive and perceive the soul of music. In other arts she was a correspondingly great stimulus.

I see her now, moving quickly and silently through the halls, an atmosphere of quiet joy seeming to emanate from her person. Or I see her in the class-room, her noble, clear-cut features worthy of the finest cameo; her eyes searching, but full of kindness; her enunciation clear and perfect. She was generally gowned in gray, a pale gray, with delicate blue at throat and waist, most charming to the eye, especially so in a community where utility in dress was paramount. I should say she was the first woman I had ever seen artistically clad in a New England class-room.

One of the last beautiful days I spent with Miss Cragin was June 4, 1868, towards the close of her last year at Wheaton, when a large party of “her girls” went with her to the woods, finding more wonderful flowers and living creatures than I have ever met on any subsequent excursion. She seemed to open our eyes to all the woodland inhabitants.

After leaving Wheaton, Cragin taught at the Normal School in St. Louis (now Harris-Stowe State University), Lazarus N. Bonham’s Female Academy in St. Louis and the Mary Institute.

Cragin Hall, built in 1911, was dedicated to Mary Jane Cragin.