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Barnes, Mary Downing Sheldon (1850–1898) - Educational History

oswego study studies university

Mary Barnes was born at Oswego, New York, on September 15, 1850. Her father was Edward Austin Sheldon, founder of a “ragged school” (schools for the poor first developed in Great Britain in the nineteenth century) in Oswego and a proponent of the educational philosophies of the Swiss educator, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi. Mary’s mother was Frances Anna Bradford (Stiles).

Barnes was educated in public schools and in 1868–69 studied classical and advanced courses at the Oswego Normal and Training School, where her father was principal. She taught at the school for two years before entering the University of Michigan in 1871 as one of the first women students. She had enrolled to study the natural sciences, but together with Lucy Maynard Salmon and Alice Freeman (Palmer), who would also eventually pioneer in history education, she took a course in history with Charles Kendall Adams, a pioneer in the German seminary method of instruction.

Barnes graduated in 1874, then taught history, Latin, Greek, and botany for $1,000 a year at the Oswego Normal School. At this time she began to apply the scientific methods of her science classes to history and later turned down a chance to teach chemistry at Wellesley, instead becoming a history professor at Wellesley in 1876 and perfecting the source method of teaching, using primary sources for critical study instead of textbooks.

Mary Barnes was a lifelong learner. When internal strife at Wellesley and ill health led to her resignation in 1879, she traveled to Europe until 1882 and studied at Newnham College, Cambridge, under John R. Seeley. She returned to Oswego Normal as history instructor and wrote her groundbreaking book, Studies in General History , in 1885. In August of that year she married Earl Barnes, a professor of history at Indiana University. The two spent seven years studying, travelling, and writing, with Mary concentrating on a study of historian Andrew Dickson White, recently retired president of Cornell.

In 1891 Earl Barnes accepted a position at the newly founded Stanford University as head of the department of education, and in March 1892 Mary became an assistant professor of history, the first woman to be appointed a member of the faculty. She taught nineteenth-century European history and the history of the Pacific Slope. While there, the Barneses wrote Studies in American History (1891), a text for eighth graders, and in 1896 Mary published Studies in Historical Method .

In 1897 the Barneses resigned their posts at Stanford and left for Europe, where they studied and traveled for two more years before Mary’s organic heart disease took its toll. After weeks of suffering and an unsuccessful operation, she died in London on August 27, 1898.

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