Dr. Mary Chandler Lowell, physician and instructor of physiology at Mt. Holyoke College from 1891 through 1899, must have been a truly remarkable woman. After earning a law degree from Boston University in 1903, she was hailed as the only woman in the United States—perhaps the world—trained as both a doctor and a lawyer. I know that my version of Dr. Lowell is pompous and self-important, but I can’t avoid that characterization after reading her amazingly—and amusingly–self-aggrandizing “Story of the Big Fire,” written fifty years after the fact.
She was, by her recollection, the last living person to stand in old Seminary Hall before it burned to the ground.
According to Dr. Lowell’s recollections, she was everywhere that day, the linchpin and fulcrum of all that transpired. It was she who instructed the steward of the college where the fire was located and what to do about it, she who telephoned the Holyoke and Northampton Fire Departments as well as the hospital in Holyoke, she who carried a heavy hose up a ladder to douse the flames, she who almost single-handedly cleared the building of students and teachers. She and she alone had had the prescience to warn the college trustees of the danger of fire in the drying room of the laundry. She was, by her recollection, the last living person to stand in old Seminary Hall before it burned to the ground, and the one who had the foresight to save a few of its embers to light the hearth in the college’s first new building.
And, incredibly, minutes before anyone smelled the first whiff of smoke, Dr. Lowell had realized from the depths of a sound sleep that something was amiss. She was napping that fateful afternoon when, she recalled, “suddenly I sprang to my feet exclaiming, ‘I’m afraid that there is trouble at the large building. I must go up at once!’” She found President Mead in the steward’s office. “Have you rung the alarms?” the doctor asked. “No,” the president replied, “I’m waiting for you.’”