a digital library of Unitarian Universalist biographies, history, books, and media
the digital library of Unitarian Universalism
Home » Biographies » Lowell, Abbott Lawrence (1856-1943)

Lowell, Abbott Lawrence (1856-1943)

Harvard Square Library exists solely on the basis of donations.  If you have benefitted from any of our materials, and/or if making Unitarian Universalist intellectual heritage materials widely available and free is a value to you, please donate whatever you can–every little bit helps: Donate 

Abbot Lawrence Lowell President from 1909-1933

Abbot Lawrence Lowell, President of Harvard from 1909-1933.

Biographical Introduction

Attorney, educator and twenty-fourth president of Harvard University, Abbott Lawrence Lowell was born on December 13, 1856 to a “Boston Brahmin” family. He was the son of Augustus Lowell, a prominent Boston financier, and Katherine Bigelow Lawrence.

Lawrence Lowell was preceded by a long lineage of notable figures: John Lowell was a member of the 1780 convention that framed the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Francis Cabot Lowell accumulated the family fortune through his cotton mills at Waltham and Lowell. James Russell Lowell gained fame as a diplomat and poet. Lowell’s siblings also achieved success: His older brother, Percival, was a well-known astronomer, and his younger sister, Amy, won recognition as a poet.

After studying at private academies in Paris and Boston, Lowell entered Harvard in 1873 and excelled in mathematics and athletics; he was a member of the Hasty Pudding, famous for its theatrical productions. Lowell graduated cum laude in 1877, with membership in the Phi Beta Kappa Society. After earning a law degree in 1880 and clerking in a local law office, Lowell practiced law for 17 years with his brother-in-law, Francis Cabot Lowell. Lowell had married Anna Parker Lowell, a distant cousin, in 1879. During his years as an attorney, Lowell served on the governing boards of several educational institutions and published scholarly works on law and government.

In 1897 Lowell retired from law and accepted the post of lecturer in government at Harvard. Lowell was a leading member in 1902-1903 of the Committee on Improving Instruction, whose findings led to the establishment of a four-year requirement for earning a bachelors’ degree. He chaired another committee in 1908 that found student academic motivation to be lacking.

Lowell set out right away to mend the institutional shortcomings he perceived when elected to replace Charles W. Eliot as president of Harvard in 1909. Under Lowell, “Harvard would become an empire unto itself—international in reach and power,” according to writer Matthew Battles. During his twenty-four year tenure (1909-1933), Lowell substantially reformed Harvard’s educational and housing systems and expanded the scale of the College, as well as its base of financial support.

As early as 1910, Lowell established a modified academic plan of “concentration and distribution,” which exists to this day. Next, Lowell instituted a tutorial system and subdivided concentrations, requiring general examinations. Troubled by socioeconomic segregation in undergraduate residential life, Lowell formed—with the aid of Yale graduate Edward Stephen Harkness and in the face of sharp student opposition—a House Plan in the tradition of Oxford and Cambridge. Freshman were placed in separate residences, while upperclassmen’s houses had their own dining room, library, master, and resident tutors.

Under Lowell, the number of students and faculty more than doubled. Sixty-seven structures were built or modified during his presidency, with Widener Library and the Fogg Art Museum among the most notable. To finance these projects, Harvard’s endowment grew from $22.7 million to $128.5 million.

Lowell retained general management of the Lowell Institute throughout his presidency and appointed speakers for public lectures,. Under Lowell’s supervision, the Institute directed its resources towards popular and adult education, partnering with other local universities and paying the bulk of tuition fees for accepted applicants to attend courses.

During World War I, Lowell was a member of the League to Enforce Peace, a group willing to use force to bring about peace. Following the war, although a Republican, Lowell sponsored a petition presented to President Hoover and Congress in favor of Woodrow Wilson’s plan for a League of Nations.

Lowell was swept up in controversy in 1927 when, as part of an advisory committee to review the trial of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, he reported that the trial condemning the defendants to death had been fair.

Lowell resigned from the Harvard presidency in 1933 due to health problems. Immediately before retiring, Lowell gave $1,000,000 to establish a Society of Fellows, which would pay chosen students to do post-graduate work. In retirement, Lowell was head of the Motion Picture Research Council. In addition to his three earlier books on governments and corporations, in retirement he wrote At War with Academic Traditions in America and What a University President Has Learned.

Lowell’s wife died in 1930. They had no children. Lowell himself died of a short illness at age 86 in 1943.

— By Katia Savchuk

Obituary—Abbot Lawrence Lowell

While President Lowell was always faithful to the interests of the professional schools, it is the prime distinction of his administration that he restored, rebuilt and enlarged the College. In the last years of President Eliot’s service his pious devotion to the elective system brought unfortunate results. In 1903 Professor of the Science of Government Lowell was the chief author of the report of the faculty committee which showed that the “work” of the average undergraduate took three and a half hours a week. The classics mathematics, sciences were despised as professional, fit only for “greasy grinds.”

Stiffer tasks were imposed. When Mr. Lowell came into office in 1909 the elective system was modified and systematized for the whole undergraduate body. Ability to read ordinary French or German was required for entrance into the junior class. Divisional examinations fashioned after the Oxford Honor Schools were introduced and the tutorial system. It was hard at first to get good tutors. Students, no matter how radical they may be on other matters, are always conservative and opposed to change in the college; but tutors were found and became acceptable.

Edward Harkness, that generous Yalensian, made real an old dream of Mr. Lowell’s, giving Harvard those Georgian “houses” which the undergraduates kicked at, after their manner, and soon gratefully accepted. In a physical aspect the College prospered remarkably, but its intellectual and moral advancement was more striking. That it shares with practically all our colleges. The student world is far more alert and intelligent than it used to be.

Mr. Lowell was a student and an observer of governments. His thoughtful and penetrating writings almost make us regret that he followed a career which necessarily contained much routine and diffusion of energy . He was a good citizen and without fear. His support for the League of Nations was characteristic. A worthy successor of Dr. Eliot, he found a worthy successor in Dr. Conant.

—New York Times, Jan. 7, 1943.

One Appraisal of Lowell’s Presidency

The biographer of the Harvard College Library, Matthew Battles, concluded in the twenty-first century: “Eliot had aligned Harvard’s resources with the national interest; in Lowell’s hands, Harvard would become an empire unto itself.”

A. L. Lowell Dies, from The New York Times

  • President of University, 1909-1933, Introduced House Plan and Tutorial System
  • Doubled Student Body
  • Increased Endowment to $123,415,000—Was Member of Noted Boston Family

BOSTON, Jan. 6—Dr. A. Lawrence Lowell, president emeritus of Harvard University, over which he presided for twenty-four years, died at his home here early today after a short illness. His age was 86.

A funeral service will be held here on Saturday at 11am in the Harvard Memorial Church, erected in the Harvard Yard during Dr. Lowell’s tenure as head of America’s oldest institution of higher education.

Tributes from all parts of the country were received today and tonight to the famous educator, who directed Harvard’s affairs from 1909 to 1933, introduced many educational changes and left Harvard the most richly endowed institution of learning in the country.

Tribute from Roosevelt

President Roosevelt joined thousands of Harvard alumni tonight in mourning Dr. Lowell. In a telegram to Dr. James Bryant Conant he said:

“I mourn with you and with all Harvard men the passing of a great figure in the life of the university. As administrator, as author and as citizen and publicist, Dr. Lowell served many and varied causes with fidelity and distinction. His long life was singularly well-rounded and complete.”

He established the Graduate School of Business Administration, and to Harvard College he introduced the tutorial system and the house plan, two innovations which revolutionized the undergraduate life.

Since his retirement in 1933, Dr. Lowell had maintained his association with the university. He was a familiar figure as he marched in commencement processions in his cap and gown and sat on he commencement platform beside his successor, Dr. Conant.

President Conant tonight paid warm tribute to the man he succeeded as president, declaring that “Harvard College as it stands today is to a large extent his handiwork.” He cited some of the contributions Dr. Lowell made to Harvard history and referred to his “unflinching stand on academic freedom during the intolerant period which followed the last war.

“This university, and universities everywhere, will always stand deeply in his debt,” added Dr. Conant.

Remade Harvard

Harvard University was virtually remade, from top to bottom and inside and out, by Abbott Lawrence Lowell during the years he guided its destinies.

Its twenty-fourth president, Dr. Lowell served from 1909 to 1933, taking Harvard over from the late Dr. Charles W. Eliot and leaving it a vastly different institution in the young hands of James Bryant Conant. When he was called to the presidency the college had an enrollment of 3,800 students and an endowment of $22,716,000; when he left it, there were 8,000 students walking its famous Yard, and its endowment was $123,415,000, the greatest of any in the country.

Dr. Lowell began with a change in the system and worked from that to a change in the structure. He started with the firm conviction that Harvard’s noted system of electives had failed in many cases to work for systematic education. Almost overnight he revised this, so that every student was required to concentrate in some one field of education while still utilizing elective courses to obtain a liberal acquaintance to many.

Next Dr. Lowell ordered that freshman must live together, so that they might get, under proper supervision, a “correct introduction to the social and intellectual life of the undergraduate. He then established the tutorial system and the general examinations.

The new college plan was brought to fruition in 1930, and for Dr. Lowell it marked the grand climax of a long and essentially successful career. He who had withstood the gibes of a great portion of the world because he had refused to move in behalf of Bartholomew Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco in 1927, had done what he had set out to do. That little world of Boston of which he was so much a part hailed his achievement. The greater world of education hailed it too. Two years later he decided to retire to private life, to drive his car up and down the white roads of sandy Cape Cod, having at last prepared the new Harvard for the tercentenary of the old.

This came in 1936. Dr. Lowell was there to see and speak of his handiwork, now in the firm hands of young James B. Conant, Roxbury Latin School graduate, chemist and believer in the Lowell tradition of expansion, liberalism and Harvard dignity.

Other Members of Family

Dr. Lowell, who was born in Boston on Dec. 13, 1856, was a true product of that section of society long known as “Cold Roast Boston.” His traditions were those of the Brahman aristocrat.

Among the prominent members of the family was John Lowell of the class of 1760, whom President Washington elevated to the magistracy in the Massachusetts district. He was a member of the convention of 1780 which framed the Constitution of the Commonwealth. Judge Lowell’s son, John, of the class of 1786, became famous in Massachusetts politics as the opponent of Thomas Jefferson. Francis Cabot Lowell, Harvard, 1793, laid the foundation for the family fortune when he started the cotton mills at Waltham and Lowell.

Among the descendants of Judge Lowell none became more widely known than James Russell Lowell, Harvard, ’38, one of America’s foremost diplomats and men of letters.

His father, Augustus Lowell, Harvard, ’50, was one of Boston’s financiers, and Dr. Lowell himself, while engaged in teaching the science of government before his elevation to the presidency of Harvard, was administrator of the Augustus Lowell Trust, with controlling interest in many New England industries. The late Percival Lowell, famous astronomer, was a brother of Dr. Lowell, and Amy Lowell, well-known poet, was a sister.

Was Graduated in 1877

Dr. Lowell was the son of Augustus and Katherine Bigelow Lowell. After completing his elementary education he entered Harvard in 1874 and made a notable record in scholarship and athletics. He was graduated in 1877 with the degree A. B. cum laude, with highest honors in mathematics and membership in the Phi Beta Kappa Society.

After graduation from Harvard Law School and a year in the office of Russell & Putnam, Boston, Dr. Lowell received an LL. B. degree in 1880, and immediately was admitted to the bar. He practiced for seventeen years in partnership with his kinsman, Francis Cabot Lowell.

Dr. Lowell retired from the practice of law in 1897 to accept the post of lecturer in government at Harvard.

Starting his presidential career in opposition to the theories of his predecessor, he lost no time in bringing his ideas to bear fruit. Early in 1910 the university and faculty board adopted his modified system as it affected all undergraduates and candidates for distinction. It was called the plan of “concentration and distribution” and began with the class of 1914. It still exists.

The next radical change in the curriculum was the requirement that no candidate for a degree should be promoted to the junior class until he had proved his ability in a written examination to read ordinary French and German. Later Latin was added as an alternative to this requirement.

Tutorial System Changed

The next reform, the most far-reaching with the exception of the “house plan,” was the tutorial system and the allied general or divisional examination. Starting with Dr. Lowell’s Division of History, Government and Economics and followed in turn by other divisions, all concentrators were required, beginning with the class of ’17, to take a general examination upon the field of their concentration.

During the war of 1914-18 Dr. Lowell, who stood strongly for “no peace without a decisive victory,” steadfastly refused to accede to the demands of the hysterically patriotic that German subjects be dropped from the curriculum.

In the heat of the abortive drive to save Sacco and Vanzetti from the chair to which, many felt, they had been unfairly condemned, Dr. Lowell and two other distinguished Bostonians were called upon as an advisory committee by Governor Alvan T. Fuller.

Their report to the Governor was that the trial had been fair and the jury impartial, and that no subsequent evidence warranted the granting of a new trial.

Not until February, 1932, did Dr. Lowell make his first speech over the radio.

He sponsored a petition with the support of hundreds of college professors and publicists and presented it to President Hoover and Congress asking the government to signify to the League “that the United States will concur in economic measures it will take to restore peace. Although a Republican, he had supported President Woodrow Wilson’s plan for a League of Nations immediately after the war.

Not Idle in Retirement

After his retirement from Harvard he lived in his austere Marlborough Street home in Boston’s Back Bay or at his Summer place on Cape Cod.

Dr. Lowell in retirement became head of the Motion Picture Research Council, a group organized to promote studies of the social values of motion pictures.

In 1933, he gave $1,000,000 to Harvard to establish a Harvard Society of Fellows, which he had conceived. This was a plan whereby chosen students were paid while doing post-graduate work.

On June 19, 1879, he married Anna Parker Lowell, a distant cousin, who was a daughter of George G. Lowell of Boston. Mrs. Lowell died in 1930. They had no child.

New York Times (1857-Current file); Jan 7, 1943; ProQuest Historical Newspapers. The New York Times (1851-2003) pg. 19.

Photos Depicting the Life of Abbot Lawrence Lowell

Widener Library (1913).

Widener Library (1913).

Fogg Art Museum (1925).

Fogg Art Museum (1925).

Busch-Reisinger Germanic Museum (1917).

Busch-Reisinger Germanic Museum (1917).

The Great Court of Lowell House (1929).

The Great Court of Lowell House (1929).

The Faculty Club (1930).

The Faculty Club (1930).

Memorial Church, Harvard (1931).

Memorial Church, Harvard (1931).

Related Resources in the Harvard Square Library Collection

The Biography of Amy Lowell

The Biography of Percival Lowell