About The Lowell Institute

"the prosperity of my native land, New England, which is sterile and unproductive, must depend on the intelligence and information of its inhabitants" -From the Will of John Lowell, Jr.

Founded in 1836 with a mission to inform the populace regardless of gender, race or economic status, the Lowell Institute has reached thousands of Boston area residents by sponsoring free public lectures and other educational programs.

Lowell Institute Timeline

Portrait of John Lowell, Jr., Alexandria
Charles Gleyre (Swiss (active in France), 1806–1874)
Watercolor over graphite pencil

Lent by the Trustee of the Lowell Institute, William A. Lowell
Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


John Lowell, Jr. was a successful merchant and the eldest son of textile manufacturing pioneer Francis Cabot Lowell. At the age of 16, Lowell dropped out of Harvard and chose to pursue his passion for travel. Over the next two years he visited India twice, following the routes of Marco Polo. Upon returning to Boston, Lowell found success as a merchant and was elected to the City Council of Boston and the Massachusetts State Senate. An avid supporter of the lyceum movement in Boston and a founding member of the Boston Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, Lowell showed an early interest in adult education for the public. In 1825 he married Georgina M. Amory with whom he had two daughters. Their marriage was happy, but unfortunately ended prematurely when Georgina succumbed to Scarlet Fever in 1830. Over the next two years Lowell would lose his two young daughters to Scarlet Fever as well.

Devastated by the loss of his family, Lowell decided to sell his properties and once again travel the world. After drafting his initial will and transferring his businesses to his closest friend and cousin, John Amory Lowell, he left for London in 1833. He traveled from London to Paris and then Rome where he commissioned Swedish artist Charles Gabriel Gleyre to record his travels through sketches and watercolors. From Italy they traveled to Greece, Turkey, Armenia, Persia, and Egypt. By the time they reached Egypt, Lowell had been traveling for two years and was suffering from disease. Aware of his condition, Lowell sat at the palace of Luxor on the banks of the Nile to revise his will and create the trust that would become the Lowell Institute.

Lowell’s will directed that one-half of his estate was to be put in a trust with the income being used for the maintenance and support of public lectures to be delivered in Boston.

Lowell envisioned an educational institution dedicated to providing lectures to the people of Boston regardless of their gender, race, or economic status. For that reason the lectures were to be free of cost and open to everyone.

Lowell’s condition worsened as he continued on camel back through Egypt and into India, where he eventually passed away in Bombay on March 4, 1836. John Amory Lowell became the first trustee of the Lowell Institute in July of 1836 when the news of his cousin’s death reached Boston.