Searching for Sarah


Albright's Sid Dreese and Karen Jogan at the gravesite of Sarah Eccleston in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Albright College archivist Sidney Dreese and Professor Karen Jogan traveled to Argentina in the spring to investigate the life of Pennsylvania native Sarah Eccleston, a little-known but influential early education reformer.

By Hilary Bentman

Sarah Chamberlain Eccleston was a remarkable woman.

Born in Union County, Pa., in 1840, Eccleston graduated from college, served as a nurse during the Civil War, and earned her teaching certificate.

The widowed mother of two started a kindergarten in her hometown, established a facility to train kindergarten teachers in Minnesota, and then ventured off to Argentina to help transform the educational system there.

But very few Americans know her name.

Albright College's Sidney Dreese and Karen Jogan, Ph.D., are hoping to change that.

Jogan, professor of Spanish, and Dreese, Albright's archivist, recently traveled to Argentina to research Eccleston's life and work, scouring archives and libraries and visiting important sites associated with this pioneering woman.

Now, Dreese and Jogan are considering writing an article on Eccleston.

"She's unknown, and we want to make her known or re-known," said Dreese. "We really want to get the word out about Sarah."

The search for Sarah actually started 20 years earlier, when Dreese began researching five Pennsylvania women who served as battlefield nurses during the Civil War. Dreese came across Eccleston's name and discovered she had lived and worked in Argentina and had helped bring the kindergarten model to the South American country.

Dreese obtained Eccleston's diaries from her surviving family in Pennsylvania. But since he does not speak Spanish, details of Eccleston's Argentine adventures eluded him.


Sarah Eccleston during her years in Argentina.

That's when Dreese started talking to Jogan, who was intrigued by the topic because of her interest and research into the life of former Argentine President Domingo Faustino Sarmiento.

An educational reformer and activist, Sarmiento had visited the United States in the mid-19th century, met with Horace Mann and other education advocates, and embraced the concept of early childhood learning.

Developed in Germany, kindergarten was still a relatively new concept, with the first American kindergarten opening its doors in 1860.

"Sarmiento was a Renaissance man, a forward thinker," said Jogan.

Hoping to improve Argentina's educational system, Sarmiento invited 65 American teachers – of whom Eccleston was one – to his country to help develop kindergarten programs and to train local teachers.

Eccleston arrived in Argentina in 1883 with her 14-year-old daughter Emily in tow. (Her son John would join the family later). Mother and daughter boarded a ship in New York that took them first to London and then to Buenos Aires, with Eccleston studying Spanish during the long journey.

Once in Argentina, Eccleston settled in Paraná, an important provincial region in the northeast of the country, where a normal school was established to train kindergarten teachers.

"She was going to a place she had never been. Some teachers went down and quickly left. Some died of cholera or yellow fever," said Jogan.

The kindergarten model Eccleston and the others employed was hands-on, with learning through play, puzzles and group activities. Eccleston not only helped train the Argentine teachers but taught them English, as well.

"She had perseverance and diligence," said Dreese.


Site of the school where Sarah Eccleston taught in Paraná, Argentina.

Eccleston's name may have been lost in the annals of American history, but her reputation has endured in her adopted country. The Instituto Superior del Profesorado de Educaion Inicial "Sara C. de Eccleston," a national center for training kindergarten teachers in Buenos Aires, bears her name. There is also a teacher training school in Paraná called Sarah Eccleston College.

Several years ago, Dreese contacted Estela Gambelin, president of the Eccleston school in Paraná.

In 2011, Gambelin visited Albright and presented a lecture on the impact of American teachers who established schools in Argentina in the 19th century. 

But Dreese and Jogan wanted to delve further into Eccleston's life, and that meant making the trip to Argentina.

Jogan spent her spring semester on sabbatical researching Eccleston and, together with Dreese, spent 10 days in Argentina when the semester ended.

"We were overwhelmed by all we found," said Dreese.

Eccleston lived in Argentina the remainder of her life, even playing a role in the national kindergarten movement in Buenos Aires.

She died in 1916 and is buried in the capital city.

Besides an article on Eccleston, Dreese and Jogan are hoping to draw on their experience to develop other lectures and presentations – on campus or off – about researching archives and primary documents, particularly in foreign countries.


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