Kate was born in South Dennis, Massachusetts, on September 19, 1857. Her mother, Almira, had travelled there from her home in Hartford, VT, to be with her own mother and sisters for the birth of her first child. Almira returned to Hartford with her infant daughter, where Kate, an only child, grew up surrounded by adoring relatives and with the company of many village playmates. She later wrote, “I was too precious to be sent to district school … and my education was carried on at home…I do not remember a time when I could not read, only I had to go hunting for my books, not taking kindly to the standard works in my father’s library … . A neighbor used to like to tell … about going to the front door one day…and seeing a small girl standing there (myself) who asked, ‘have you any of the books of Charles Dickens?’ She had, and I read them all, one after the other … I swallowed them whole… .”
When Kate was 14 she was sent to stay with relatives and study at nearby Norwich Academy for two years. Her father Ephraim, wrote to her on her 14th birthday, “… you are being benefitted by the change … giving you an opportunity to associate more extensively than you have before with those, who like yourself, are seeking knowledge, thus laying the foundation for a useful and prosperous life.”
Determined to have an education beyond that of young women of her time, Kate became a boarding student at Kimball Union in 1873. Kate’s daughter wrote that this may have been a “sobering experience” for her sheltered mother as can be seen through a letter from Kate’s mother, “… because you see wrong in others don’t let it make you repulsive and cold and unapproachable. Do be sunny and jolly … your letter (sounded) as if a woman of 45 wrote it … . Will you not listen to your mother and kick up your heels and joke and roll down hill and flirt and laugh and be free and easy and have your childhood and girlhood while you can?” Years later, Kate looked back at her serious young self with some amusement saying that she, “… used to lie awake nights hating men because they could go to college and study Greek.”
Kate graduated with honors from KUA in 1875. She had considered matriculating at Vassar, but decided on Smith, a new college about to open its doors. “I think the distinction of being in its first class appealed to her,” wrote her daughter who added that Kate’s years at Smith were all that her mother had hoped for. In remembering her professors many years later, Kate wrote, “… to mention any one of them gives me a thrill.” After graduation in 1879, Kate was offered a professorship there, but didn’t take it because of her engagement to Charles Cone, a long-time suitor, although they had decided to marry after he finished graduate work in Baltimore.
At that time, a group of Harvard professors had consented to give private instruction “to properly qualified young women who desire to pursue advanced studies at Cambridge.” Known as the Harvard Annex (later Radcliffe College), Kate enrolled as a Medieval history student and was one of two post-graduates among 27 women who attended that first year. She wrote an essay on the “Electoral College of Germany” which her professor advised her to enlarge and perhaps print – “… it was worth a doctor’s degree” he told her. Later, discouraged by some of his indignant comments about her work, Kate’s mother wrote to console her, “Well, if I were you I would not feel so cursed of this earth because I was a woman, just from anything Dr. Emerton says. I should just poof up my nose at him … .” Encouraged, she did more research and reworked her paper and early in 1881, she seriously considered submitting it to the Harvard authorities for a PhD degree. Her mother again wrote to encourage her, “It would be just fun to see what they would do … even if they would not give it, there would be a good deal of amusement about it.” Harvard was not amused and formal application was denied on the basis of Harvard remaining a men’s college, a decision, “a very grave one,” the authorities said they had made.
Her daughter wrote, “Denied a degree from Harvard because of her sex, she was awarded the Ph.D. degree from Smith in 1882, in recognition of this graduate study.” Thus, “Kate Morris received the first Radcliffe, first Smith Ph.D,” stated the Friends of Smith College Library. Kate was very active in alumnae activities over the years and was the first alumna to sit on the Board of Trustees. When it was organized, Smith made her an honorary member of Phi Beta Kappa.
Returning to Hartford, VT, after they were married, Kate spent the remainder of her life reading widely and writing for periodicals such as Outlook and the Atlantic Monthly. She was very involved in numerous community and welfare work. She was instrumental in establishing a visiting nursing system in Hartford and was one of the charter directors of the Vermont Children’s Aid Society, remaining on the board until her death on November 8, 1929.
Next time: Daniel Foster, class of 1836, “The Fighting Chaplain of the Massachusetts 33rd” – Civil War.
PHOTOS: Bryant Block located next to the Congregational Church parsonage and originally Daniel Kimball and John Bryant’s store, was purchased by the Academy in 1858 as a dormitory for young ladies. Deeded back to John D. Bryant in 1910, it burned to the ground in 1927. We don’t have a photograph of Kate Morris, but this is probably where she boarded as a student at KUA.
Morris House and Lawrence House were built in 1891 at Smith College and were the first to be named for alumnae of Smith. Morris House is named for Kate Morris, KUA class of 1875, who was one of the first 11 graduates of Smith and who received the first PhD awarded there. Kate’s father, who co-owned the Hartford Vermont Woolen Mills, funded construction of the building.