Louise Helen Coburn was Colby’s second female graduate, and like her predecessor, Mary Low, she didn’t simply leave the college with her degree. She left, instead, an indelible stamp on Colby College through a lifetime of involvement and leadership.
If anything is surprising about Coburn’s story, it might be that she was a second generation Colby graduate of a family deeply tied to the institution. Her father, Stephen Coburn, graduated from Colby in 1839, and the Coburn family was crucial to Colby’s early development as benefactors. Still, when Coburn sought admission, she was carefully scrutinized. She often related the story of how Professor Foster spent a day examining her from nine in the morning until five in the afternoon, focusing on her abilities in Latin and Greek, to insure she was capable of doing college work before she enrolled.
Beyond academics Coburn constantly stood up for the equal treatment of women. It began with Sigma Kappa. There were Colby fraternities, but no sororities when women were first admitted. As a student, Coburn helped found Sigma Kappa at Colby which became a nationally recognized sorority.
Coburn’s devotion to equality at her alma mater was life-long. In 1890, President Albion Small introduced a plan to end coeducation at Colby and effectively push women out of the college by creating a separate women’s division. Coburn helped Mary Low draft a letter of protest in response to Small’s decision. Her voice was especially crucial because of her family’s financial ties to the school.
The bold and eloquent letter, even with Coburn’s support, was to no avail. The Trustees refused to reconsider their decision. When fall semester began in 1890 the coordinate system went into affect, and Coburn was appointed to the committee on the new Women’s Division. She couldn’t prevent the new system of coordination, but she accepted the appointment to be sure Colby women were still being educated to the highest level possible.
Coburn pushed for increased representation of women in all facets of the college. Much of that early representation, however, rested on her shoulders. Coburn became the first female Trustee of the college in 1911. She was the first president of the Colby Alumnae Association. And along with many other women she campaigned for adequate housing for female students, and encouraged President Roberts to appoint a woman as a full professor, necessary for affiliation with the American Association of University Women. Dean Ninetta Runnals was the first woman to have full a professorship, through Coburn’s efforts.
Coburn’s dedication to Colby fit in somehow with her own career pursuits in. Trained as a botanist, she published science books and pamphlets, and was editor of the “Maine Naturalist.” Outside the scientific realm she wrote “Skowhegan on the Kennebec,” a two volume history of the area, and was well regarded for her poetry.
Louise Coburn didn’t live long enough to see Colby completely return to a coeducational system, but it was through her support that more substantial facilities for women, as well as men, were constructed on the Mayflower Hill Campus. She died February 7, 1949.