October 19 marks the birthday of Annie Smith Peck (1850-1935) who hailed from Providence, Rhode Island. Born the youngest of five children, Annie’s father was a well-educated lawyer and successful entrepreneur. As was expected of daughters of prominent families at the time, Annie was sent to follow an appropriate educational path — in her case to Dr. Stockbridge’s School for Young Ladies. It’s unlikely that the educational goals of this exclusive institution had much in common with the plans that young Annie had in mind for herself. Women at the time were discouraged to pursue the heights of education, but as with the mountains that she would later tackle, Annie Peck reached the summit, enrolling in the University of Michigan not long after this institution first granted women entrance. She graduated in record time with honors. She followed this with a masters degree and was subsequently awarded a professorship, becoming one of the first US women to achieve this status. Despite her prestigious career in academia, the mountains had always held a special fascination for her. Unable to ignore their lure, Annie had by age 44 left her position as a Latin Professor at Smith College to become a full-time mountaineer, an even less probable profession for women at the time than that of a professor.
Annie would be the third woman to ascend the Swiss Matterhorn, and the first to do this in trousers rather than the unwieldy skirts of the day. She later scaled the 22,205 foot Mt. Huascaran in Peru, reaching the peak on Sept 2. 1908 when she was 58 years old. It was the only case where a woman climber would attain the summit of a major mountain before a male climber. It had taken Peck four years and five attempts to summit this mountain, then believed, before more accurate means of measurement were developed, to represent the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere. Peck’s last mountain ascent was of the 5,636 foot Mount Madison in New Hampshire at the age of 82. Peck continues to serve as an inspiration to woman explorers and her image hangs in the women’s bathroom at The Explorers Club.