Thayer Academy History
Click on one of the numbers below to see a snapshot from Thayer Academy's history.
Located in historic Braintree, Massachusetts, Thayer Academy was founded in 1877, in accordance with the will of General Sylvanus Thayer, a native of Braintree. Sylvanus Thayer led a distinguished life as a soldier, engineer, educator, and philanthropist. He graduated from Dartmouth College as valedictorian of his class in 1807. The following year, he graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, again at the head of his class, with the rank of Second Lieutenant of Engineers. After several years as a Army engineer, Sylvanus Thayer returned to West Point, becoming the youngest (and longest serving) Superintendent of the U. S. Military Academy.
In addition to founding the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College, he contributed funds to establish the Thayer Public Library in Braintree, and stipulated in his will that the bulk of of his estate should be used for "the erection of an academy in which young persons of the male sex (or both male and female if my trustees deem it expedient) shall be educated." He proposed "to promote the cause of education in the Commonwealth according to my ability, and benefiting the town of Braintree, the place of my birth."
The First Faculty – Three Extraordinary Educators
THE ACADEMY OPENED ITS DOORS ON SEPTEMBER 12, 1877, to 30 students under the direction of three faculty members: Jotham B. Sewall, who also served as the Academy's first Headmaster, Anna Boynton Thompson, and Charles A. Pitkin.
Mr. Sewall, was an ordained minister, a Phi Beta Kapa graduate from Bowdoin College, where he completed a master’s degree and then later returned as Professor of ancient languages. He was remembered by students as “the white-haired angel” and was known as an inspired speaker who contributed qualities of leadership, scholarship, and community concern to the Academy.
(See items 3 and 4 for notes on Anna Boynton Thompson and Charles A. Pitkin.)
Main Building as it looked in 1877
Anna Boynton Thompson
Anna Boynton Thompson left her post as Principal of South Boston’s Bird School for Young Women to join the original faculty at Thayer Academy, where she would spend the next 44 years teaching and pursuing a quest for knowledge that earned her an A.M. degree from Radcliffe and a Doctorate of Literature from Tufts. Her formal education and extensive travel in Greece made her an authority on Greek history, philosophy, architecture, and sculpture. Not only was she an asset to the Academy, she was also in demand as a lecturer at prominent art museums and colleges.
Ms. Thompson was fiercely devoted to Thayer – her refusal of one year's salary so the school could buy the land behind Main Building is legendary. When the Board of Trustees decided that the school could not afford to purchase the property that extended back to Tremont Street – where the playing fields are now – she found a way to make it happen. She established scholarships in her mother's name for Thayer graduates who would enter Harvard and Radcliffe. These awards are still given each year at Last Chapel. Ms. Thompson also funded professional development opportunities for fellow teachers, and when she died, she entrusted her home, "Thayerlands," to the school, providing the site for a junior school that would take on the name of her estate.
Charles A. Pitkin
Mr. Pitkin was a scientist whose students thought him “young, debonair, and extremely brilliant… a teacher who could explain intricate problems at the board with his eyes shut.” He taught physics and chemistry at Thayer for 40 years and during that time also served as professor of general chemistry at Tufts’ Medical and Dental Schools and at Boston’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. From the very beginning, Thayer Academy distinguished itself by choosing outstanding faculty members who demanded scholarly excellence not only of their students, but of themselves as well.
Thayer Academy's first headmaster, Jotham B. Sewall, retired from his position as Headmaster in 1896, at the age of 72. Eight exceptional men followed in succession:
Jotham B. Sewall
1877 - 1896
1896 - 1920
1920 - 1948
1948 - 1966
1966 - 1967
1967 - 1991
William J. Elliot
1991 – 1995
Eric M. Swain
1995 – 2003
2003 – Present
Thayer Academy Middle School
Thayer Academy Middle School first opened its doors in the fall of 1924 to students in the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades. One of Thayer's first teachers, Anna Boynton Thompson, had left her Hobart Avenue home and property to the Academy, on the condition that it be used to establish a junior school. The school, which was an entity separate from Thayer Academy, was known as Thayerlands and was an immediate success. Additional grades were added, and by the early 1930s, Thayerlands welcomed children from Pre-K to eighth grade. This full range of classes continued until 1969, when the Board of Trustees voted to phase out the lower school grades and return the school to its original configuration. Also at that time, the name of the school was changed from Thayerlands to Thayer Academy Middle School and it was no longer run as a separate school.