William Alcott

William Andrus Alcott (August 6, 1798 – March 29, 1859), also known as William Alexander Alcott, was an American educator, educational reformer, physician, and author of 108 books. His works, which include a wide range of topics including educational reform, physical education, school house design, family life, and diet, are still widely cited today.

William Andrus Alcott
Born(1798-08-06)August 6, 1798
DiedMarch 29, 1859(1859-03-29) (aged 60)
Occupationeducator, physician, author

Early life and family

William Alcott was born in Wolcott, Connecticut.[1] His father was a farmer, Obedience Alcott (1776–1847); in the 1820s, like many members of the family, he altered the spelling of his last name, which on his tombstone appears as "Obid. Alcott".[2] His mother was Anna Andrus (1777–1864) who was the daughter of a Revolutionary War soldier and William's most important educational influence.[3] He attended local schools and became a close friend with his near neighbor Amos Bronson Alcott who would later enjoy wide fame as a philosopher and as the father of writer Louisa May Alcott. Although sometimes described simply as "cousins" the two were actually second cousins; William's grandfather David Alcott (1740–1841) was the brother of Amos Bronson Alcott's grandfather, Captain John Alcott. The two boys shared books, exchanged ideas, and started a small library together. Odell Shepard had written of Amos Bronson Alcott, "Indeed there is a sense in which nearly everything Alcott wrote and did is attributable to William" [4]

Teaching and medical education

At the age of 18 Alcott began teaching in a school located just a few yards from his father's house. With brief interruptions, he would continue to teach for the next nine years. His experiences as a student country school teacher would later become the subject of many of his later publications. He observed that the benches used by students were often painful and, at his own expense built backs onto the benches; these became the ancestors of the later school desks. He campaigned for better heating and ventilation in schools. He labored to improve the intellectual content of classrooms. While he was successful as a teacher,[5] in the summer of 1824 he suffered an attack of the disfiguring, dangerous skin infection erysipelas,[6] and about this time was beginning to suffer from tuberculosis. He would suffer symptoms of both for the remainder of his life.[7] He began studying medicine, with the thought that the extra knowledge would aid his teaching.[8] His formal study of medicine was brief. In the winter of 1825–26 he attended "a regular course of medical studies" in New Haven, Connecticut. In March 1826 he was granted a license to practice medicine. In addition to teaching, he practiced medicine at least until 1829.[9]

William Channing Woodbridge and early writing

In the spring of 1830 he met William Channing Woodbridge. Woodbridge had just returned from Europe and was in the process of revising his second geography. Alcott at first worked as an assistant to Woodbridge for which he was paid twelve dollars a month to check facts and improve maps. The two became close friends. In 1831, Woodbridge purchased the American Journal of Education and renamed it Annals of Education. The two men then moved to Boston. Alcott wrote many articles for the journal, especially those dealing with school design and physical education. Even after Woodbridge lost control of the Journal in 1836 and became its foreign editor, Alcott continued to write for the publication.[10] He would later publish a poignant memoir of Woodbridge's life.[11] While still teaching he had begun to contribute articles to newspapers and started work on the book that would become The Young Man's Guide.[12]

Later life

On June 14, 1836 he married Phebe Lewis Bronson (June 14, 1812 – November 9, 1907). They had three children. For a time they shared a house, Cottage Place, with the family of his old friend and cousin Amos Bronson Alcott. In the 1840s William moved to the town of Newton, Massachusetts, just outside Boston. Eventually he would settle into a house in Auburndale in the town of Newton. He died here of a lung infection. He worked until the day before he died. William Alcott is buried in Newton Cemetery.[13]

Ideas, diet and morals

Alcott became one of the most prolific authors in early American history. He wrote frequently on the topics of education and health. In 1836 he wrote a letter to the editor of the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal titled "The Graham System" (May 4, p. 199-201; he signed it "M.D." The cause of greatest interest to Alcott throughout his life was vegetarianism. In 1850 he wrote three long letters on vegetarianism to the editor of the New York Tribune - at the request of the editor (Aug 14, Nov. 6). Here he shows clearly that his preference was for a diet that used no animal products - what would today be called a vegan diet.

Alcott wrote The Physiology of Marriage in 1856. He deplored free courtship manners. He specifically deplored "conversation which is too excitable", "presence of exciting books", "unnecessary heat", and many other courtship practices prevalent in 18th century America but steadily going out of fashion by 1856. He warned young people of the dangers of courtship. He is criticized by modern-day feminists for his "rigidity".

Alcott edited the Moral Reformer (1835-1939) in Boston, a journal dedicated to eliminating intemperance, gluttony and licentiousness.[14][15] He was the editor of the vegetarian Library of Health journal.[16] In 1840, the Moral Reformer and The Graham Journal of Health and Longevity were merged in the Library of Health.[14]

Alcott was a founding member of American Physiological Society in 1837, America's first vegetarian organization.[17] He was a founding member (in 1850) and the first president of the American Vegetarian Society.[18] He was also the author of The Vegetable Diet As Sanctioned by Medical Men and By Experience in All Ages.



  1.  Kelly, Howard A.; Burrage, Walter L., eds. (1920). "Alcott, William Alexander" . American Medical Biographies. Baltimore: The Norman, Remington Company.
  2. Photographs are available on the commercial site Ancestry.com in several family trees
  3. Orcutt, Samuel, History of the Town of Wolcott, Waterbury, Conn.: American Printing company, 1873, pp. 265-267, 435.
  4. The Journals of Bronson Alcott, edited by Odell Shepard. Boston: Little Brown, 1958, p. xv.
  5. "Dr. William A. Alcott", Memoirs of Teachers, Educators and Promoters of Education Literature and Science, edited by Henry Bernard; New York Brownell, 1859a, pp. 249-267.
  6. Orcott 1873, p. 268
  7. "Dr. William Alcott," Historical Magazine, June 1859b, p. 193
  8. Alcott, William A. (1859). Forty years in the wilderness of pills and powders. Boston: J. P. Jewett. LCCN 01019657.
  9. "Dr. William A. Alcott, 1859a, p. 257.
  10. "Dr. William A. Alcott", 1859a, pp. 163-164.
  11. Alcott, William A. "William C. Woodbridge," Memoirs of Teachers, Educators and Promoters of Education Literature and Science, edited by Henry Bernard, New York: Brownell, 1859, p. 51–64.
  12. "Dr. William A. Alcott, 1859a, p. 266.
  13. Orcutt 1873, p. 267
  14. Fletcher, Robert Samuel. (1971). A History of Oberlin College: From its Foundation Through the Civil War, Volume 1. Arno Press. p. 319
  15. Numbers, Ronald L. (2008). Prophetess of Health: A Study of Ellen G. White. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. p. 105. ISBN 978-0-8028-0395-5
  16. Shprintzen, Adam D. (2013). The Vegetarian Crusade: The Rise of an American Reform Movement, 1817-1921. University of North Carolina Press. p. 37. ISBN 978-1-4696-0891-4
  17. Iacobbo, Karen; Iacobbo, Michael. (2004). Vegetarian America: A History. Praeger Publishing. pp. 36-37. ISBN 978-0275975197
  18. International Vegetarian Union - History of Vegetarianism - American Vegetarian Society
  19. Old Sturbridge Village | Explore & Learn | OSV Documents - William Alcott’s First Day as a School Master
  20. Old Sturbridge Village | Explore & Learn | OSV Documents - Advice on Choosing a Wife
  21. http://www.nimbus.org/ElectronicTexts/YgMnsGde.1836.html online text
  22. Project Gutenberg Edition of The Young Woman's Guide
  23. Use of Tobacco: Physical, Intellectual, Moral Effects on Human System (1836), by Alcott, William A., M.D
  24. Old Sturbridge Village | Explore & Learn | OSV Documents - The Ward Families and Their "Helps": Domestic Work, Workers, and Relationships on a New England Farm, 1787-1866
  25. Project Gutenberg Edition of The Young Mother: or, Management of Children in Regard to Health
  26. Electronic Text of William A Alcott's "The Adventures Of Lot"
  27. http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=moa;idno=AJF2317 page images
  28. Elijah the Tishbite - Alcott, Wm A
  29. Stories of Eliot and the Indians
  30. google books text
  31. The Anatomical mission to Burma Sciencemag


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