Skip to main content

Downer papers

Identifier: MS 0528

Scope and Contents

The Sara Boddie Downer Papers consist of correspondence, writings, scrapbooks, biographical information, and photographs. Of particular significance are letters that Downer wrote between 1918-1986. Many of the documents are copies of letters that Downer wrote for the Woman's American Baptist Foreign Mission Society and sent to her Mount Holyoke College classmate, Ruth Sonn ("Sonny") Fritts; and two Mount Holyoke faculty members, Mildred Allen and Margaret Ball. The collection also includes several personal letters that she sent to Fritts and Ball. These letters chiefly describe Downer's life and work in China from 1920-1951. They reflect her activities at West China Union University in Chengdu, China, where she was a teacher and housemother, and her travels in China; they frequently include comments on political events, such as the Sino-Japanese Conflict, World War II, and the rise of communism in the country. Later letters describe her work in the Chung Chi College in Hong Kong, 1955-1962, and her activities in retirement. Downer's correspondence also includes letters, 1919-1946, written by Mary E. Woolley, President of Mount Holyoke College. The letters discuss events at the College such as the construction of new buildings, Woolley's trip to China and Japan in 1921, and world events. Downer's close relationship with Mount Holyoke's president is reflected by two scrapbooks of clippings, notes and tributes relating to Woolley that she complied between ca. 1918 and 1955. Downer's papers also include two laboratory manuals in Chinese that she wrote in 1930, and her informational brochure about the West China Union University, ca. 1938. Rounding out the collection is biographical information, ca. 1921-1988, and photographs, ca. 1930-1955, which chiefly relate to her life in China.


  • 1918-1988

Conditions Governing Access


Biographical Note

Sara Boddie Downer was born on February 22, 1896, in Durango, Colorado. Her father, B. R. Downer, was a Baptist minister and teacher in a theological seminary in Kansas City, Kansas. She attended the Kansas City high school before enrolling at Mount Holyoke College in 1914. At Mount Holyoke she majored in physics with a minor in economics and sociology. After receiving her B.A. in 1918, she worked as a sample clerk at the Faxon and Gallagher Drug Company in Kansas City, Missouri, from 1918-1919. From 1919-1920 she worked at Mount Holyoke as Physics Department assistant. In 1920, she sailed to China as a missionary for the Woman's American Baptist Foreign Mission Society. In 1924, she became an assistant professor of physics at a newly-opened women's college at the West China Union University in Chengdu. Her duties included teaching astronomy, physics, English and music. During her furlough, May to December of 1927, she was a student at the University of California and she received her Master of Arts in physics in 1928. In 1930, she published two physics laboratory manuals in Chinese. She was promoted to Associate Professor at West China Union University in 1932. She spent her furloughs in 1934-1935 and 1945-1946 assisting the Physics Department at Mount Holyoke. She taught at West China Union until the Communist takeover forced her to return to the United States in 1951. She taught at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia until 1955, when she went to Hong Kong to head the Physics Department at the Chung Chi College in Hong Kong. In 1962 she retired to the United States. Downer died on December 4, 1987 in Oakland, California at the age of ninety-one.


0.42 Linear Feet (1 full Hollinger box)

Language of Materials



Downer, Sara Boddie, 1896-1987; Physicist, college teacher, and missionary. Mount Holyoke College graduate, 1918. Mount Holyoke College faculty member, 1919-1920, 1934-1935, and 1945-1946. Papers contain correspondence, writings, scrapbooks, biographical material, and photographs. Primarily documenting her work as a missionary in China during World War II and her correspondence with Mount Holyoke College President, Mary Emma Woolley.


Arranged in 5 series: Series 1. Correspondence. Series 2. Writings. Series 3. Scrapbooks. Series 4. Biographical Information. Series 5. Photographs.

Downer papers, 1918-1988.
Edited Full Draft
Language of description
Script of description
Code for undetermined script
Language of description note

Repository Details

Part of the Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections Repository

50 College Street
8 Dwight Hall
South Hadley MA 01075-6425 USA