Mrs Laurence Thurston, One of the Founders of China's First Women's University

By CCD contributor: Paul Wu , July 02, 2019 10:07 AM

Mrs. Laurence Thurston(middle) and graduates of Ginling College

Mrs Laurence Thurston was a female missionary from the American Presbyterian Mission and also one of the founders of Ginling College, someone who made a great contribution to female schools. 

Born on May 16, 1875, in Hartford, Connecticut, Mrs Thurston was born into a devout Christian Scottish immigrant family. Her birth name was Matilda S. Calder. As a child, dreaming to become a teacher, she often played games with her friends, games that pretended to be school


At 17, she enrolled in Mt. Holyoke College of Massachusetts. Influenced by her college students peers who were passionate about overseas evangelism, Matila, unconcerned with evangelism, was determined to preach the gospel abroad.  After graduation in 1896, she asked the church for an overseas evangelism assignment and was sent to Turkey. 

In Turkey, she encountered Rev. John Lawrence Thurston, a student at Yale University, and the two fell in love. In 1902, they returned to the U.S. to report and got married. After that she was known as "Mrs Thurston". Under the influence of her husband Lawrence, one of the key founders of the Yale Foreign Missionary Society, she became a member of the society.

The missionary couple arrived in China in 1902. Two years later, her husband died of tuberculosis. Becoming a widow, Mrs. Thurston turned grief into strength and was actively engaged in ministry. 

In order to promote education for women, foreign missionary societies in China co-established Ginling College in Nanjing. Mrs. Thurston was elected as the first president because of her fine educational background, rich life experience, and particularly her connections with American church universities. 

From 1904 to 1906, she worked as the secretary of The Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions. Later she taught in Xiangya School of Medicine at Central South University until she went back to her country in 1911. In 1913, missions in China including the Methodist Episcopal Church (north and south), American Baptist Foreign Mission Society, and Foreign Christian Missionary Society decided to together co-establish a women's college in the Yangtze River area. The next November the school board chose Nanjing to be the site of the school and named it "Jinling Women's University". The majority supported Mrs Thurston as the first president because of her fine university background, rich life experience, and especially close and extensive contact with American church universities.

On September 20, 1913, Mrs Thurston came to China again and began to prepare to build the university. In 1915, "Jinling Women's University" was opened. At that time, there were just four foreign teachers including herself, two Chinese teachers, and eight students. 

Four years later, the first class of five students graduated, marking them as the first female university students to obtain a bachelor's degree at a Chinese university. The school's motto was "abundant life", derived from John 10:10 ("I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full."). Mrs Thurston explained that "abundant life" was the best development in every area. Among the various kinds of development, moulding of personality and the nurture of the life in Christ were the most important. Students with abundant life could understand that they should make contributions to society. Wu Yifang, the first Chinese president of the college, said that life's purpose was not just for one's self, but to help others and society with one's wisdom and ability. One would then be helpful to other people and life would become richer. 

Mrs Thurston was in charge of school administrative affairs for 15 years. During her 12-year presidency, she poured her heart into preparation, fundraising, and school planning. She also taught several subjects including studying the Bible, astronomy, algebra, and geometry. Her emphasis on the teaching of traditional Chinese culture enabled many students to acquire both western and eastern knowledge. 

As the education quality steadily improved under her leadership as well as other co-workers, the women's college became known across the country. Historical data shows that the school set up 16 disciplines including Chinese, English, history, society, music, physical education, chemistry, biography, home economics, and medicine. Between 1919 and 1951, 999 women graduated from the college.


In November 1928, Mrs. Thurston resigned from her position as president and transferred the administrative duties to two Chinese women, Wu Yifang and Xu Yizhen. In her resignation speech she stated that the university's goal was to establish a women's school in the spirit of Christianity and be managed in a Christian way. It should maintain a high standard of education to improve social efficiency and promote mental development with the highest personality. She remained at the school not in school administration but rather served in teaching and development. 

In 1943, she left her beloved Jinling Women's University and went back to the U.S. She passed away in 1958.  

- Translated by Karen Luo

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