Susan Tolman Mills

Susan Tolman Mills
Susan Tolman Mills

Time Period


Subject Categories

Education, Religion

Notable Facts

Teacher at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Moved to Sri Lanka with her husband to teach at the Batticotta College. Taught at the Punahou School in Honolulu. Co-founder and president of Mills College-- the first women's college on the West Coast.

Personal Information

Date of Birth


Date of Death


Primary Residence




Historical Significance

Susan Tolman Mills was born in Enosburg, Vermont, to John Tolman and Elizabeth Nichols Tolman. Her father operated Gilbert's Tannery out of their homestead, which is still standing. At age ten, the family moved to Ware, Massachusetts, so John could expand the family tanning business.

After graduating in 1845 from Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, Mills taught classes there for the next three years in the chemistry, science, and theology fields. In 1848, she married a Presbyterian missionary, Cyrus Taggart Mills, who had been educated at Williams College and Union Theological Seminary. He had decided upon a missionary career, and immediately after their marriage the couple moved to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Cyrus Mills became principal of Batticotta College, a seminary for boys, and Susan Mills taught domestic skills to local girls. The climate caused health problems for both of them, and they returned to Boston in 1854. In 1860, the couple relocated to Honolulu where they took over the Punahou School (known as Oahu College). Susan Mills taught geography, geology, chemistry, and botany and introduced calisthenics to the female students. She is also credited with improving the food and providing other amenities to the school.

In 1864, the Mills resettled in California and bought the Ladies Seminary in Benicia from Miss Mary Atkins the following year for $5,000. The school included three lots of land, a residence, and a cottage, and enrolled ninety students. They improved the school by increasing the number of course offerings and recruiting new qualified teachers, several of which were from Mount Holyoke. They sold the property in 1871 for $10,000 and relocated to the Oakland foothills, where Mills Hall was built. Cyrus Mills served as head of Mills Seminary and Susan Mills was lady principal until Cyrus's death in 1884. The school was incorporated in 1877 and became Mills College in 1885, the first women's college on the Pacific Coast. Susan Mills maintained her position as lady principal until 1890, when she was elected President. While serving as President, a science building, an auditorium, a library, and a gymnasium were added to the Mills campus. She retired at the age of 84 in 1909.

Mills died in 1912 in the house that she and her husband built on campus, a Vermont cape house that today serves as the college president's home. Mills is buried in the Mills College cemetery in Oakland, California. The college Art Gallery is maintained by the endowment from the estate of Susan Mills.

Organizations or Movements

  • American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions


  • Teacher
  • missionary
  • social worker
  • college administrator and president.


  • B.A., Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts (1845)

Additional Information (Bibliography)

  • Mills, Susan Lincoln Tolman. (2008). In Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved June 25, 2008, from Encyclopedia Britannica Online: Link

  • Enosburg Falls, Franklin County Driving Tour Link

  • Parsons, Cynthia and Kathleen Whalen. Eleven Awesome Vermont Women. Huntington, Vermont, 2004.

  • James, Elias Olan. The Story of Cyrus and Susan Mills. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1953.

  • Mills College History Link

  • James, Edward T, ed. Notable American women, 1607-1950; a biographical dictionary. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971, pp. 546-47.

Additional Images

Mills College - from Mills College web site
Mills College - from Mills College web site
Mills Hall.
Mills Hall.