Popular Science Monthly/Volume 6/November 1874/Educated to Death

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AT the age of fifteen Mary was a remarkably fine and healthy girl: she seemed to be safely over the critical period, and, till after that time, had never suffered as many girls do at the commencement of their womanhood. Her thinking powers were quick and vigorous, and she was the pride of her teachers and joy of her parents. Unlimited mental progress was laid out for her, and it seemed that there were to be no bounds to her acquirements.

She had then finished a good common-school education, at the best high-school, and had entered an institute for young ladies (a boarding-school) of the highest character. The curriculum of study there was comprehensive, and it required the closest application of an ambitious scholar to succeed.

One hour was allowed for walking and recreation during the day; and half of that hour could be spent, if the pupil desired to do so, in the music-room. As the months went on, I began to notice that her complexion, which had been pure rose-leaf, became almost transparent, and that the fresh blood left her cheeks: still she did not complain nor lose flesh, but said sometimes, if she could sleep a week she would enjoy it, and that it almost always happened, when she was unwell, she had the most to do, and the longest to stand. Her progress in her studies was wonderful; and it seems incredible to me now that we should have let her devote herself so entirely to them. Her musical talents were great, and they were under cultivation also: when she was seventeen she was the first soprano singer in the choir of the church to which she belonged.

At last I began to be alarmed at the remarkable flow whenever she was unwell, and at the frequent recurrence of the periodical function. I felt as if something should be done, and consulted our family physician as to what could be given her, and how this increased action could be stopped or diminished.

He prescribed iron as a tonic, but said that we should do nothing more; for that "every woman was a law unto herself," and, as long as nothing more serious occurred, she was to be let alone. This from a man who had daughters himself, and eminent in the profession! Never a word about rest, never a caution that she could overwork herself, and thus bring misery for the remainder of her life. She left school, in June of that year, with noble honors and an aching frame, and, after two months' vacation and rest, which seemed to do her a world of good, began in September another year of unremitting hard study. Loving and gratified parents, proud and expectant teachers, looked upon her as capable of accomplishing all that had ever been done by faithful students, and of advancing far beyond all who were in the graduating class with her.

Her teachers were as kind as any could have been. I think the fault was in the system that requires so many hours of study, no matter what the condition of the pupil may be.

As an instance, twenty-five questions were given her to be answered. She was seated at a table, without books, from 10 a. m. till 8 p. m., ceaselessly thinking and writing; and the twenty-five questions in classical literature were faultlessly answered, and that, too, at a time when, had I known what I know now, she should have been resting on her bed.

Her father, to whom the paper was shown for his approval, wrote on the margin: "It seems to me that the task imposed here was a great one, indeed; but it has been performed with good success." I do not for a moment mean to find fault with her teachers, for kinder, more interested ones no pupil ever had; and the delight that a teacher derives from a painstaking and appreciative pupil cannot be understood by those unused to teaching.

While the dear child was meeting our utmost requirements as a scholar, the foundations of her life were being sapped away.

In May, 1872, a little more than two weeks before the June commencement, she was taken with fearful sickness and severe chills, just after one of the hæmorrhages that came every three weeks regularly. Our doctor was called, and the first thing she said to him was: "Doctor, I must not be sick now. I cannot afford the time. I must be well for commencement." For four days she suffered very much, but quinine and all sorts of tonics brought her up; and the two weeks that should have been taken to get well in were spent in study, study, study. All the examinations were passed successfully, even brilliantly, and she was graduated with all the honors of the institution. Oh, how proud we were of her! and when she came home, frail and weak as a wilted flower, we said that she should have a long rest, and every comfort that we could give her.

All summer she remained in the Highlands of the Hudson; yet, when autumn came, she was not as well as we thought she ought to be, though very much improved with regard to the monthly turns, they recurring at right times now.

In September she commenced studying again; her French and music were continued, so that she might become still more accomplished in those branches, and lectures on rhetoric and moral philosophy were attended also.

The habit of studying was so strong upon her that she could not give it up. Now came swelling of the joints and fingers, and the old trouble, all of which she would have kept to herself if she could have done so; but I was so anxious about her that I ascertained her condition, went to the doctor again, and begged him to tell me what to do that would stop the weakening periodical disturbance, as I was persuaded that was the cause of her trouble. He said she had inflammatory rheumatism, and prescribed soda. But I was not to do any thing for the other matter, and, against my own convictions, I let things take their course. Oh, if he had said, "Take her home, and stop her studying!" Armed with such authority, I should have done it, and how do we know but she might have been with us now if I had done so?

But, she worked on till the 25th of December. Then she came home, and said decidedly she would study no more till she was well.

We were rejoiced at her decision; for, although we were anxious that her education should be completed and thorough, we had felt for a long time that her health was becoming impaired. Still we were sure she had a good constitution, and thought that would carry her through. She did not grow thin, but stout and pale, and such a transparent pallor, that, now I think of it, I wonder all who looked at her did not see that her blood was turning to water. Her sweet and lovely soul was so uncomplaining, and her smile always so bright, that we never for a moment thought she could fade and die.

She brightened up somewhat for the next month, but still did not "get well." About the last of January her limbs swelled so much that, in haste, I rushed to the doctor. Then he said her kidneys were congested, and that Bright's fatal disease was her malady. All that despairing love could do was done now. In five short weeks we laid her in Greenwood. Whatever was the form of the disease from which she suffered, I am convinced that what she did have was brought on by incessant study when she should have rested, and that it was fixed at the time that she got the severe chills—in May, 1871.

She was by no means a frail girl when she entered the institute. She was tall, finely formed, with a full, broad chest, and musical organs of great compass. Her bust was not flat, neither was it as full as it might have been. Her features were not too large. She had brown eyes, brown hair, a very sweet and pleasing face. With every indication at first of strength and a good constitution, she fell at last a victim to want of sense in parents and teachers, and—shall I say?—physician too.

  1. From "The Building of a Brain," by Edward H. Clarke, M. D. The appearance of this narrative in Dr. Clarke's volume is thus explained by him in the following prefatory remarks: "Last February I received a letter from a gentleman, personally a stranger to me, but well known as an accomplished scholar and writer, to the effect that the case of his daughter, who died less than a year previous, aged eighteen, would furnish an excellent illustration of the evil results of inappropriate methods of female education, and that he would be willing to have the history of her case published, if its publication would render any service to the cause of sound education. In reply to a request for the history which he had so kindly and unexpectedly offered to prepare, the following note was received, which forms an appropriate and sufficient preface to the sad account that follows it:

    'March 30, 1874.

    Dear Sir: The inclosed statement is from the pen of my wife. If it can serve the right, you are at liberty to make use of it in whole or in part, in the language in which it now stands, or in modified or entirely different language as in your judgment may seem best. You, of course, will not give names, certainly not in full.

    'Very truly, ——————————.'

    "It is proper to say that, except a few slight verbal alterations, which the writer herself would probably have made if she had corrected the proofs of her manuscript, no changes have been ventured upon in the language by which a mother presents the instructive lesson of her daughter's method of education, and its result."