Honoring Generations of Philanthropy: Access for All to Public Education

The Lowell Family

2009 Passion for Action Leadership Award Recipient
Accepted by William Lowell

The Lowell Family has had a long and influential history in the City of Boston and in the history of the United States. From John Lowell, who served as a judge under President George Washington after the Revolutionary War; to Francis Cabot Lowell, who introduced the power loom into the United States and is the namesake of the City of Lowell, Massachusetts; to the poets, Amy Lowell and Robert Lowell, the family is embedded in the rich fabric of American history.

For more than a century, the Lowell Family has been committed to accessible public education for all, beginning with the founding of the Lowell Institute, an educational foundation that provided free public lectures for the benefit of the citizens of Boston. The Lowell Institute was endowed in 1836 by a bequest left by John Lowell Jr., a world traveler and the son of Francis Cabot Lowell. John Jr. wanted to be sure that the citizens of Boston could access public education for little or no fee, at a time when this was not common. The popular lectures took the form of courses usually ranging from half a dozen to a dozen lectures, and covering almost every subject. Many of the most eminent men in America and Europe participated in the lectures. The Lowell Institute is now one of the oldest continuing foundations in the country and funds many local programs and organizations.

The first trustee of the Lowell Institute was John Lowell Jr.'s cousin, John Amory Lowell, who administered the trust for more than 40 successful years, and was succeeded in 1881 by his son, Augustus Lowell. Augustus started the Lowell School of Practical Design, which built upon the Courses of Instruction for Teachers that his father had started while trustee of the Institute. The Lowell School of Practical Design eventually merged with the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which was designed by another Lowell family member, Guy Lowell, an architect. Augustus' son, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, took over the Institute's trusteeship in 1900. In 1903, Lawrence opened the Lowell Institute School at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which trained industrial engineers. The School is still in operation today at Northeastern University in Boston. In 1909, Lawrence became president of Harvard University and soon after founded the Commission on Extension Courses at Harvard. He saw the Commission as an experiment in "popular education" that served those in the community who had the ability and desire to attend college, but also had other obligations that kept them from traditional schools. Today, it is known as the Harvard University Extension School and has educated more than 400,000 students.

During the mid-20th century, attendance at the lecture series was declining. The trustee of the Lowell Institute at the time, Ralph Lowell, looked for ways to increase the viewing audience. He created the Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcasting Council (LICBC), which brought together six Boston universities to produce educational programming for radio stations. This led to the creation of the WGBH radio station in 1951 and the WGBH television station in 1955. The WGBH Educational Foundation is now one of the largest producers of public television content in the United States. Upon Ralph Lowell's death in 1978, the Lowell Institute was left in the capable hands of his son, John Lowell.

Under John's direction, with the assistance of his son Bill who serves as Administrator, The Lowell Institute continues to support WGBH and dozens of local educational organizations. It is for all of their wonderful contributions to society and to education that Wheelock College is proud to honor the Lowell Family with the 2009 Passion for Action Leadership Award.

 

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