Alcott, William A. (William Andrus), 1798-1859
William Andrus Alcott, educator, physician and prolific writer of advice literature, was born in Wolcott, Connecticut. Cousin to Bronson Alcott and Bronson's daughter Louisa May Alcott, Alcott was the only son of John Alcox, a farmer. His great-grandfather, John Alcock, was the first settler in Wolcott in 1731 and his paternal grandfather, John Alcox, fought in the Revolutionary War as a captain. Alcott's mother, Anna Andrus Alcox, was descended from the first settlers in Waterbury. A year older than Bronson, William grew up with his cousin in Wolcott. Together they attended the district school, shared a love of books and reading, and agreed to change the spelling of the family name to Alcott. As Bronson writes in his autobiography,
William Andrews [sic] Alcott. He was my cousin and a little older than myself.
Living in sight, we sought each other's society whenever we could steal away
from our home duties, hoping to find conversation and reading food for our
minds not accessible to us at school . . . We read the same books, borrowed
any within our reach that promised to be interesting or instructive; formed
a Juvenile library, as we called it; corresponded by letters, delivering these
at each other's doors; cherished like dreams of the future. Teaching was a
desirable occupation and possible for us; we even aspired to authorship .
. . Dr. Alcott's writings on hygiene and primary education were numerous;
they had a wide popularity for a time, and might be read still with profit.
He was a pioneer in reforms, in methods of teaching and discipline. As a teacher
in his district his reputation was second to none . . . Few men have lived
lives of more untiring industry. His modesty was the only impediment to a
wide and just appreciation by his contemporaries.
(p. 151 - 52 Notes to New Connecticut)
Alcott himself describes his early education as consisting of "attending the district school near my native home from three to four months every winter . . . and a few months every summer from (the age) of four to eight." His father needed his help on the farm the rest of the year, though from age thirteen to seventeen, Alcott did attend "a kind of high school every winter, in all about six months." He admits to scarcely having had one serious thought of school teaching until his father was appointed to the local school district committee, which took an interest in the young man who had "good learning", lived near the school, and could board at home. From these farmhouse beginnings, Alcott began a career in education and writing that would bring him to the forefront of the educational reform movement of his day.
After teaching school for several years, Alcott began suffering from what was probably a tubercular infection. The illness would tax him for the rest of his life. He attended Yale Medical School and received his diploma in 1827. He intended to establish a model school, incorporating his knowledge of physiology and health to aid his teaching. His condition made teaching very difficult, however, and Alcott practiced medicine near Wolcott, gaining strength from the outdoor hours spent on horseback necessary to make house calls. He received an invitation to start a school near Hartford, Connecticut; the schedule allowed for ample outdoor activity and adequate sleep, and Alcott, in better health, began his voluminous writing. His essay on the construction of school-houses won an award by the American Institute of Education. He published small volumes on educational subjects, and began lecturing. In 1831 he began editing and writing for journals and magazines, editing the first magazine for children in the United States, the Juvenile Rambler, and contributing to the Annals of Education, Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, and others. An untiring author, over the course of his 61 years he wrote 19 books on education, 31 books on physiology, physical education and health, 14 family and school library texts, and 44 Sunday school library texts.
Much of Alcott's work stressed the moral basis for health and education. In The Young Housekeeper, he posts:
The grand question, in short, is, What are the kinds of food which are best for healthy persons -- best for their whole being, here and hereafter? . . . We have no more right in physical than in moral matters, to slumber on doubtful ground. We are to do good even by our eating and drinking; and not merely to do good, but do the most good in our power.
This lofty aspiration influenced every attitude Alcott held about food. His chapter headings in The Young Housekeeper reveal a preacher's demeanor towards common foods: "Chapter XXIII: The Apple . . . One of the Creator's noblest gifts . . . Chapter XXIV The Pear -- Quality of pears. Bad ones . . . Chapter XXXIV The Cucumber -- Evils of the cucumber overrated." He objects to butter and cheese not so much for health reasons, but because at this time women were the chief manufacturers of these foods, and he felt that their time could be better spent in the moral education of children. "What can be more valuable than female labor, applied to the physical and moral management and early instruction of children?" This middle-class sentiment expressed an increasingly common imperative to define women's work in terms of moral education, away from the traditional domestic production of household goods. Alcott's aim in writing The Young Housekeeper was to "elevate" housekeeping. Echoing cookbook author and contemporary Catharine Beecher, he writes in the Preface, "The elements of the nation, nay, of the world itself, are prepared, to a very great extent, in our nurseries, and around the domestic fireside."
Though much of Alcott's "scientific" arguments would be considered dangerously erroneous today, and though his medical advice on such topics as digestion, nutrition, human growth and development, and reproduction are best read for historical interest only, his body of work reflected an intensity of moral mission characteristic of his time and unmatched by any other period in American history. His family, of successful yet modest farming roots, produced in William Alcott a practical man of teaching, medicine, and letters, at the same time it produced in his more famous cousin Bronson a struggling figure of vision, poetry, and transcendental idealism. Bronson recalled in verse, a few years before his death, the bond between the two of them when they were young:
One youth he knew, in sight of chimney's smoke,
Fired with the love of letters, - only one;
together they a fairer lot bespoke, -
For fortune's frown let mother-wit atone.
William Alcott married Phebe Bronson in 1836, and had two children. His last years were spent in the town of Newton, Mass, where he died of pleurisy in 1859, and was buried in the Newton cemetery.
- Alcott, A. Bronson, New Connecticut. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1887.
- Alcott, William Andrus, The Young House-Keeper: or, Thoughts on Food and Cookery. Boston: Waite, Pierce & Co., 1846.
- ----------. Confessions of A School Master. New York: Arno Press & The New York Times, 1969.
- ----------. The Physiology of Marriage. New York: Arno Press & The New York Times, 1972.
- Bedell, Madelon, The Alcotts. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1980.
- Dictionary of American Biography. Vol. 1. Ed. Allen Johnson. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1964.
- Mills, Paul R., "William A. Alcott, M.D. (1798-1859): Pioneer Reformer in Physical Education," diss., University of Maryland, 1971.
Written by Anne-Marie Rachman