Mary Burton

1819 – 1909

Social Reformer & first female director of Heriot-Watt University

Mary Burton was born in Aberdeen but moved to Edinburgh in 1832 with her widowed mother and brother. She never married, but raised her orphaned nephews and nieces, and was educated by her mother. She dedicated her life to working for the furtherance of women and supporting the poor.  She persuaded the Watt Institution and School of Arts (forerunner of Heriot-Watt University) to open its classes to female students in 1869, and became its first woman director in 1874.

When the Institution became Heriot-Watt College in 1885 she became a life governor, and in her will she left legacies for prizes for evening-class students of both genders, and to the Edinburgh National Society for Women’s Suffrage to campaign for the admission of women to sit as members of parliament, either at Westminster or in a Scottish Parliament. She was a campaigner for women’s suffrage and Irish Home Rule, and urged that universities should be open in the evening to admit working people.

Burton made an income through owning 'slum' tenements in Edinburgh's Old Town, although her actions were somewhere between enlightened and paternalistic, encouraging her tenants to embrace thrift and cleanliness, while abstaining from alcohol.

Burton died at Elmhill House, that part of Aberdeen Royal Lunatic Asylum which cared for private patients, and lies buried in Dean Cemetery in Edinburgh. A building within Heriot-Watt University is named in her honour.

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