Clara Pike Begins Teaching at Wheaton

Clara M. Pike 1866 began her 32-year teaching career at Wheaton in 1869. Having attended classes at the Women’s Laboratory of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she regularly invited professors from MIT to lecture at Wheaton.

Clara M. Pike (ca. 1844-1933) grew up in New Hampshire. She was advised to attend Wheaton Seminary by family friend, Dr. Gardner Braman Perry, D.D., who had grown up in Norton and admired Judge Wheaton. Because of Perry’s introduction, Mrs. Wheaton made Pike a special favorite, taking her for drives and caring for her through an early bout of homesickness. After graduating from Wheaton Female Seminary in 1866, Pike taught the English Branches from 1869 to 1871, and Natural and Physical Sciences (botany, chemistry, physics and astronomy) from 1871 to 1901. Often antagonizing the principals, president and trustees with her intensity and tenacity, she fought for improvements in science facilities and equipment.

Pike organized lecture series by faculty from Harvard and MIT in physics, chemistry, mineralogy, field geology and zoology. At her behest, Mrs. Wheaton funded a chemical laboratory, a natural history cabinet, a telescope and compound microscopes. With Miss Pike, “every girl learned to love the beauty of the outdoor world, a trait not always found in connection with scientific study, and yet a possession which many a woman would acknowledge to have made life far better worth living”.

Clara Pike remained one of Mrs. Wheaton’s closest friends and her favorite teacher, making a habit of visiting every morning for a little

daily chat about the girls, which was in no sense gossip, but the result of a large human interest. Miss Pike tells us of the beautiful smile with which she was always greeted, Mrs. Wheaton often coming to the door to meet her. ‘How do you do, and how are they all at the Seminary?’ she always asked, with that characteristically sincere manner that showed the questions were not merely perfunctory. Then she would ask about the classes. ‘I saw the girls going to the Observatory last evening. What did you see through the telescope?’ ‘I saw you walking with the natural history class this morning before breakfast. What birds did you hear’?”

Paine, p. 250

After retiring from Wheaton, Miss Pike moved to Hampton, New Hampshire. She was one of two alumnae who arranged for the portrait of Mrs. Wheaton by John Alexander, which hangs in the lobby of the Wallace Library. In fact, Mrs. Wheaton spoke her last words, on 21 May 1905, to Clara Pike.

A woman of “enthusiasm and magnetism” who was considered to be “one of the most important ‘Wheaton influences’ of her time”, Miss Pike was greatly loved by her students. A bird feeder and bench were designed in her memory by Ralph Adams Cram, and placed near the library. Her obituary in the Alumnae Quarterly noted that it was impossible to estimate the value of Miss Pike’s “unflagging enthusiasm, excellent instruction, and sympathetic understanding…”. The many Wheaton alumnae she taught agreed that this unusually gifted woman had made their lives richer and finer. “Miss Pike’s sensitive appreciation of Nature has left a deep impression on all her students and her eagerness to show her pupils the poetry which lies in the ‘meanest flower that blows’ inspired in them her own great love for the out-of-doors.” Mary E. Woolley, Class of 1884 and president of Mount Holyoke College, wrote that, “all of Miss Pike’s students will bear witness to her unfailing sympathy, tact and personal interest in them, as well as to her unbounded enthusiasm for her work, which was contagious, and made would-be scientists out of us all!”

Julia Osgood, a student in the 1860s, wrote in 1907 that Pike was

thoroughly equipped as a teacher of the Natural Sciences, she constantly raised the standard in her department. She had the love and confidence of all the girls, and watched over the details of their health and happiness with a wisdom and patience having its root in the most beautiful spirit of motherhood. For more than thirty years she poured out in the service of Wheaton all the riches of her heart and brain and enthusiasm.”

Paine, p. 164-5

Miss Pike continues to be honored at Wheaton. In September 2001 and 2002, the College’s chapter of the American Chemical Society sponsored the Clara M. Pike Undergraduate Research Symposium, attracting students from many colleges.