Ella Weed was born on January 27, 1853, in Newburgh, N.Y., the eldest daughter of Jonathan Noyes Weed and Elizabeth Merritt Weed. She attended Miss Mackay’s school in Newburgh before attending Vassar College, where she wrote for the Vassar Miscellany, helping to create the publication’s high reputation. After graduating with honors in 1873, in 1875 she went to Springfield, Ohio, to teach at an all-girls school, specializing in preparing students for Vassar. In 1882, she returned to New York to teach at her former school, Miss Mackay’s, and in 1884, she became head of the day school at the Anne Brown School New York City.
Annie Nathan Meyer sought Weed’s assistance when she wanted to establish an annex to Columbia for women. She hoped to replace the existing Collegiate Course for Women, which did not allow women to attend lectures but required that they complete the same work at the same standards as the male students who did go to lectures. Weed’s contacts at the Anne Brown School were socially prominent, and she was able to get the signatures of significant New Yorkers on a petition to Columbia University trustees. As a result, Barnard College was established.
Weed was an essential part of establishing Barnard’s standards and reputation early on. She was a member of the board of trustees as chairman of the academic committee, performing the academic duties of dean, while still remaining in her position at Anne Brown School. Among the women she recruited for the original board were three other Vassar graduates. She also helped with public relations and fundraising for the college. Weed believed in high standards, which became evident in the various ways she shaped the Barnard education. She established a Greek entrance requirement to mirror that of Columbia College. She also believed that it was important to have a breadth of knowledge and therefore did not allow students to specialize in any area, with the exception of the sciences. Additionally, she did not allow students to transfer into the College so that all Barnard graduates would receive a Barnard-only education, and to further ensure standards she insisted that Columbia supervise all instruction at Barnard, winning the cooperation of Columbia’s faculty and administration. Ella Weed’s determination that women should be equipped with the tools they needed to fully realize their abilities made her an important figure in women’s education and in Barnard history. Weed died in 1894.