Mary Burton

1819 - 1909

Social reformer, who was regarded as one of Edinburgh's foremost women of her time. Born in Aberdeen, the son of a junior army officer, Burton followed her elder brother John Hill Burton (1809-81) to Edinburgh. She dedicated her life to working for the furtherance of women and supporting the poor. In 1869, she persuaded the Watt Institution to open its classes to women, and she was appointed their first female director in 1874 and a governor of Heriot-Watt College in 1885. She argued for female suffrage and promoted the cause of free education.

Burton made an income through owning 'slum' tenements in Edinburgh's Old Town, although her actions were somewhere between enlightened and paternalistic, encouraging her tenants to embrace thrift and cleanliness, while abstaining from alcohol. She lived at Liberton Bank House in South Edinburgh from 1844 to 1898 and took the young Arthur Conan Doyle (1859 - 1930) into her home (1866-68), to protect him from his alcoholic father and ensure he was provided with an education.

Burton died at Elmhill House, that part of Aberdeen Royal Lunatic Asylum which cared for private patients, and lies buried in Dean Cemetery in Edinburgh. A building within Heriot-Watt University is named in her honour.

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