The Brewster Sisters

Elinor Dunn

Ellenor Brewster Dunn (1754-1841)
Jennet Brewster Irvin (1761-1839)
Nancy Brewster Alexander (1763-1830)

The matriarchs of Indiana University's founding families.

Surnames such as Dunn and Maxwell are synonymous with Indiana University, serving as the namesakes of popular areas and a well-known building on the Bloomington campus.

But had it not been for the Brewster sisters, places such as Dunn Meadow, Dunn's Woods, Dunn Cemetery and Maxwell Hall -- and even IU -- may not have existed, and the history of Bloomington could have been drastically different.

Ellenor Brewster Dunn (1754-1841), Jennet Brewster Irvin (1761-1839) and Agness "Nancy" Brewster Alexander (1763-1830) were three of the eight children of James and Elinor (Williamson) Brewster, and their families had a significant impact on the university and the city.

"They are matriarchs in the true sense," said John Summerlot, director of the Center for Veteran and Military Students, who has researched the Brewster sisters as part of IU's history. "Very often when you talk about the early history of IU it's usually only men. But in reality, we probably wouldn't have the university if not for the Brewster sisters putting their collection of families together."

James Brewster was born in Ireland in 1720 and moved to Virginia at age 18. James and Elinor lived in Augusta County, and he enlisted in the Virginia Militia in 1758, serving as a quartermaster.

The Brewster family raised sheep and sheered wool to make clothing for American soldiers during the Revolutionary War. The sisters weaved the wool, cut it and sewed clothes for the soldiers. When the militia camped on the family's property, the sisters cooked and baked food -- namely bread -- and carried it to the soldiers.

James later sold his land in Virginia and moved his family to Jessamine County, Kentucky.

It was in Kentucky where Ellenor, Agness and Jennet met and married their husbands -- creating families that would have an impact on IU and Bloomington later.

Ellenor married Samuel Dunn, a soldier in the Revolutionary War, and they settled on a farm near Danville, Kentucky. Jennet married Samuel Irvin, her cousin, and they settled on a farm in Richmond, Kentucky. Agness married William James Alexander, and they established a home on a farm in Lexington, Kentucky.

"By folding their families together, the Brewster sisters laid the groundwork for making IU possible," Summerlot said.

Ellenor and Samuel's daughter Mary married David Maxwell, who is considered the founding father of IU. On Jan. 20, 1820, the Indiana Legislature passed an act and established in the state constitution the creation of the Indiana Seminary in Bloomington, thanks to Maxwell's successful lobbying. The Indiana Seminary was renamed Indiana College in 1828, and then renamed Indiana University in 1838.

Maxwell served on IU's board of trustees, including as the president, and later was elected mayor of Bloomington in 1848.

Children of the Brewster sisters started moving to Bloomington in the 1820s after Maxwell founded IU. At some point after each of their husbands died, the widowed sisters moved to Bloomington.

Samuel and Ellenor's son Samuel Fowler Dunn bought property in Bloomington east of what is now Dunn Street. He stated in his will that a plot of land the family owned was to be used as a burial plot for the three sisters and any of their descendants.

Interestingly, the spelling of the sisters' names on their shared tombstone in Dunn Cemetery represent one of several known variations of their names. Ellenor's name also was spelled Elinor and Eleanor. Jennet also was spelled Jennette, Jeannett, Janet, Jannet and Jannett. Agness also was spelled Agnes.

The Dunn family was considered a proponent of education. After an 1883 fire destroyed much of IU's former campus -- located at what is now Seminary Square a few blocks south of the Monroe County Courthouse -- George Grundy Dunn, son of Samuel Fowler Dunn, sold part of the Dunn farm to the IU trustees. The land allowed the university to grow.

Other descendants of the Brewster sisters made their mark on Bloomington as well.

Janette "Jane" Irvin, a daughter of Jennet and Samuel Irvin, married Austin Seward in 1817 in Madison, Kentucky. Jane and Austin later moved to Bloomington, where Austin started Seward Foundry in 1822. The business operated until 1983. Austin Seward also was commissioned by the county to forge the fish weathervane that sits atop the county courthouse.

Williamson Martin Alexander, a grandchild of Agness and William J. Alexander, was a captain in the Union army and is the namesake for the Alexander Memorial on the Monroe County Courthouse square. John D. Alexander, a captain for the Union army whose Civil War memorabilia is in the IU Archives, also was one of their grandchildren.

And so many Dunns served in the military that by the Civil War, they were known as
"The Fighting Dunns," Summerlot said.

Today, Bloomington residents whose family name is Dunn, Alexander, Seward, Irvin, Maxwell, Binkley or Taylor, for example, have a good chance at being a descendent of the Brewster sisters, Summerlot said.

The legacy of the sisters lives on in other ways, too.

Hoagy Carmichael, an IU grad and famed singer and songwriter known for "Stardust," is a descendent of Agness Brewster Alexander.

IU's Hutton Honors College is named for Ed Hutton, an IU alumnus, prominent philanthropist and businessman, and the husband of Kathryn (Alexander) Hutton, a Brewster descendent and IU graduate. Both are buried in Dunn Cemetery.

Female athletes in 1896
Female athletes at IU in 1896, the year Juliette Maxwell became director of the Department of Physical Training for Women. Photo courtesy of IU Archives

An advocate for female physical education who helped build the foundation for women's athletics today.

Long before Indiana University was sending female athletes to the Olympics or competing for women's athletics championships in world-class facilities, Juliette Maxwell was striving to advance women's physical education and athletic facilities on the IU Bloomington campus.

The granddaughter of David H. Maxwell, the "father of Indiana University," Maxwell graduated from IU in 1883 with a degree in physical training -- the only woman graduating that year with a degree in this field. She then went on to Sargent's Normal School of Physical Training, a prestigious school once part of Harvard University. After completing her training at Sargent's Normal School, a short stint as a physical training instructor and head of the physical training department at Coates College brought Maxwell back to Indiana.

At the same time Maxwell came back to the Hoosier state, Indiana University established men's and women's athletics and physical education programs, making it one of the earliest universities to offer a women's gymnasium and a Department of Physical Training for Women. In 1893, Maxwell joined the department as one of its few instructors.

Instructors like Maxwell and the female students they taught did their classwork in the basement of Wylie Hall, which was then the chemistry building. They dealt with fumes from the labs above, a lack of heat in the gymnasium, and low ceilings and support beams across the middle of the gym floor.

In 1896, Maxwell became director of the Department of Physical Training for Women and began her quest for bettering the state of women's athletics and physical training opportunities at IU Bloomington. That same year, the women's gymnasium moved to the basement of Mitchell Hall, which was in nearly the same location as the current Simon Hall. While the location was slightly better, women still had to work around support beams in the middle of their gym, and the dressing rooms on an upper floor were accessible only through unheated corridors.

Despite the facilities, academic and extracurricular athletic opportunities for women continued to expand under Maxwell's leadership. In 1902, she hired Mary Roddy as an assistant, and they had 117 women enrolled in basketball and tennis courses during the 1902-03 academic year.

As interest continued to increase, Maxwell knew the department didn't have the budget or staff to meet students' needs. She wrote several letters to the Board of Trustees as well as then IU President William Lowe Bryan requesting additional dollars to support the program and outlining the needs of the student-athletes she worked with.

To President Bryan:

The Women's Gymnasium has lacked a sufficient number of lockers since last fall! Twenty-five additional may be enough to supply us for next year, but if the University can afford it, it would be better to have fifty additional.

The cost of 25 would be near $83.00.

The cost of 50 would be near 170.00.

Respectfully yours,

Juliette Maxwell

Maxwell's persistence paid off and, in 1904, the department name changed to the Department of Physical Training and Athletics. Two years later, the new Student Building opened, which included a women's gymnasium outfitted with a variety of gym equipment, a swimming pool, and locker and dressing rooms. With these expanded facilities, more activities and classes were added, including volleyball, folk dancing and -- once female students received permission to use Dunn Meadow for athletics -- field hockey.

The impact of Maxwell's leadership continued in the years to come with further structure, facilities and awards for women's physical activity. In 1913, a group of undergraduate women began the Women's Athletic Association in close collaboration with Maxwell, who served as treasurer from 1913 to 1915 and helped the group request and receive funding from the Board of Trustees.

In 1916, a new athletic field and fieldhouse for women opened east of campus. As written in the 1916 Arbutus, "Much credit must be given (Maxwell) for the active, yet conservative policy that has led to the splendid development of girl's athletics."

And in 1919, to recognize members of the Women's Athletic Association, Maxwell established the James Darwin Maxwell Medal in honor of her father, James Darwin Maxwell, who was president of the IU Board of Trustees from 1862 to 1865. The medal was given annually to a senior in the Women's Athletic Association with "consideration being given to high scholarship, participation in University activities, bearing, manners, neatness, principles, sincerity, sufficient attainment in physical education to be eligible to an IU sweater," according to the 1920 Indiana University Bulletin.

Maxwell's own leadership and impact were recognized by the university when she and Lillian Gay Berry were the first women to be promoted to the rank of professor on June 2, 1922. The promotion of these two female faculty members led to a new era for women at IU and helped raise the bar for what's possible, not only for future faculty but students as well.

In 1926, the Department of Physical Education for Women awarded its first Bachelor of Science degree. Two years later, Maxwell announced her retirement -- Sept. 27, 1928, her 66th birthday and 35 years after beginning as an instructor at IU.

"Her vision in developing a department of progressively meaningful activity experiences for women -- a program which laid the foundation upon which the future of the Department was built -- bears testimony to her wisdom and leadership over so many years," Edna Munro, Maxwell's successor, wrote in "History of the Department of Physical Education for Women at Indiana University."

In the 92 years since Maxwell's retirement, academic and athletic opportunities have continued to grow based on the foundation she built. Today, IU has female Olympians and world-record holders, varsity sports and extracurricular activities for women, undergraduate and graduate degrees in a number of health and physical activity fields, and female faculty at all levels teaching and mentoring future female athletes, leaders and scholars.

Ethel P. Clarke with nursing studentsView print quality image
Ethel P. Clarke, center, was director of the IU Training School for Nurses from 1915 to 1931. Photo courtesy of University Archives at IUPUI

The director who drove the growth of the IU Training School for Nurses into a cutting-edge program.

Surveying the lone tree on the grounds of Long Hospital when she arrived in Indianapolis in August 1915, IU Training School for Nurses director Ethel P. Clarke didn't hold back.

"It is very flat out here and it does look terrible, but I think there is an opportunity to do a great deal and we are going to be very happy," she told one of the school's instructors.

That can-do attitude would drive her tenure of more than a decade with the IU Training School for Nurses -- the present-day IU School of Nursing -- where she oversaw considerable growth in students, revised the curriculum and helped create what is believed to be the only national honorary society of nursing in the U.S.

She personally ordered all the furnishings and each piece of equipment for Ball Residence for Nursing, which was formally dedicated in 1928 and is still home to IUPUI students today.

A native of England, Clarke was just 16 when she came to America with her family, settling in Virginia. She graduated from the University of Maryland School of Nursing in Baltimore in 1906 and served as superintendent of the DeSoto Sanitorium in Jackson, Florida, and of the University of Maryland Hospital in Baltimore. She was the IU school's second director; she replaced Alice Fitzgerald, who opened the school in 1914.

Six nursing students were accepted in 1915, the year Clarke arrived in Indianapolis, bringing the total number of students enrolled to 17. Students wore uniforms with high collars and long sleeves with cuffs, and they were expected to bathe patients without getting their cuffs wet. A cape was added to the uniform in 1922, described with sartorial flair in "A History of the Indiana University Training School for Nurses: Vol. 1, 1914-1946," as "oxford gray lined with scarlet flannel and of finger-tip length. It is to have a storm collar and the 'I.U.' monogram in red."

Clarke was described as a "rather stern personality" -- student discipline at the time was characterized as militaristic -- but students acknowledged her fairness, her inspiration and her interest in each of them, according to "A History." Classmates ate together, with good china and cloth napkins (although students were required to supply their own napkin rings), per "In The Beginning: The Indiana University Training School for Nurses."

It was during Clarke's tenure that the cornerstone was laid for a children's hospital as a monument to the noted Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley. The 150-bed James Whitcomb Riley Hospital for Children was dedicated on the poet's birthday: Oct. 7, 1924.

That and the construction of the William H. Coleman Hospital for maternity and gynecological patients -- the first of its kind in the state -- required more nurses and larger living quarters. The Ball Brothers of Muncie, Indiana, donated $500,000 to build a residence hall for nurses.

When Ball Residence was formally dedicated on Oct. 7, 1928, it had room for 165 students as well as classrooms, laboratories, offices, and a demonstration room, gymnasium, library, living room and lobby. Clarke spent many hours planning Ball Residence, including writing to all the leading schools of nursing in the country for information and ideas to incorporate in the new building.

A formal sunken garden and statue -- Eve, but nicknamed "Flo" after founder of modern nursing Florence Nightingale -- were completed in 1934. That therapeutic greenspace was guided by the firm founded by Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of American landscape architecture and designer of New York City's Central Park. The sunken garden was restored in 2016.

Though Clarke left the school in 1931, she left behind a well-developed program and cutting-edge facilities that created a strong nursing heritage that continues today.

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Camilla Williams video transcript

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[Video: Camilla Williams sings at her faculty recital in the 1990s.]

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