The amazing Jennie Colby

A profile of Jennie Colby, student, volunteer, founding member of the Alumni Association, and pioneer in therapeutic gymnastics and massage treatment.

Portrait Photograph of Miss Jennie M. Colby facing off to the left. Colby’s hair is styled in a tight bun and she has wire-framed glasses on. She is wearing a dark dress with puffy shoulders and decorative edging along the collar and around the front buttons.

A tarnished metal vase with an engraving started a search into what, if anything this object in the Perkins Archives had to do with the schools’ history. The engraving which read, “presented by the Children’s Hospital to Jennie M. Colby in grateful recognition of her loving and devoted service for twenty years to a host of little paralyzed children 1914” led me to the extraordinary story of Jennie M. Colby, student, volunteer, founding member of the Alumni Association, and pioneer in therapeutic gymnastics and massage treatment for children and babies.

Tarnished silver vase with lid and description that reads, “Presented by the Children’s Hospital to Jennie M. Colby in grateful recognition of her loving and devoted service for twenty years to a host of little paralyzed children 1914.” A note that accompanied the letter states that the vase was loaned by Miss Jennie Colby for use in Founder’s Day exercises. It was later passed on to Miss Susan Mose for use on Anagnos Day.

Jennie Colby was born around 1859 in Saybrook, Connecticut. She spent time at New Haven Hospital where she received treatment for what was called a “hereditary cataract.” At the hospital, she became desirous of a nursing career and was eventually allowed to assist the nursing staff. On her last operation, it is said that Colby opted out of taking ether to be fully aware of the procedure. Colby remembered seeing the face of the nurse in attendance after that operation clearly, but after a few days complications left her with what is described as “very defective sight.” She lost her corrected vision and her dream of becoming a nurse. This devastating moment in her life is one that is repeatedly used to characterize her character and strength in remembrances.

In 1879 Colby came to Perkins to “help develop her sense of touch and learn to conserve the limited sight remaining to her.” She was 20. Her arrival coincided with Emilie Poulsson, a teacher who had recently lost her sight. The two of them had already become fast friends at the hospital in New Haven. Their arrival and time at Perkins were fondly remembered by students and faculty. Remembrances include the formation of a secret club known as the I.S.M. Society, and ensuring all girls had costumes for a “character party.” Characters included Old Mother Hubbard, the Gipsy from Il Trovatore, and a group of dancing ghosts. Despite the fun, Colby had to earn a living while going to school. Her summer vacations were spent working and she graduated in 1883, after only three years at Perkins, eager to join the workforce.

Upon graduating, around the age of 24, Colby starts her own business. Her vocation became massage and therapeutic gymnastics. Two accounts exist of how she chose her profession, and likey both versions played a part. The first was by the suggestion of the New Haven Hospital staff who thought massage as a suitable alternative to nursing (massage was new at this time). The second involved a Perkins Staff member with a sprained ankle who was treated by a blind masseuse named Dr. Monroe. It was Monroe who first trained Colby. It is noted that while Munroe treated massage (or “Munroe treatment” as he called it) as a “cure-all.” Colby required a referral from a licensed physician only and took courses taught by recognized experts in the fields of massage and therapeutic exercise. This approach is attributed to her time in the New Haven Hospital and desire to be a nurse.

Colby eventually owns a gymnasium and school of massage, while also attending to her private practice. She is credited with being the “parent of hydrotherapeutics” in Boston. Colby is also credited with practicing massage and therapeutic exercise work with “psychological care,” essentially treating the whole person not just the affliction. She would go on to co-author Educational Gymnastic Play for Little Folks, published in 1906. Colby’s most noted contributions involve her work on cases of infantile paralysis.

It is noted by Doctor J.J. Thomas, Neurologist at the Children’s Hospital, Boston that she showed “conclusively” that massage and exercise were “the most essential mode of treatment in these cases” and also proved that these treatments must be done in carefully, in measured amounts, in order to be done safely. She developed effective treatments for particular groups of paralyzes and moreover devised playful ways of getting small babies to cooperate. An example provided mentions a technique Colby would use to get small children to exercise through play. She would say “Rocket’s ready. Shoot,” and arms would happily lift above the heads.

Her methods became standard practices at Children’s Hospital and staff were often sent to be trained by her. Dr. William N. Bullard wrote that “with out her the massage and the educational exercise work in the Department of the Diseases of the Nervous System could never have been satisfactorily initiated and developed” An article she wrote titled “Massage and Remedial Exercises in the Treatment of Children’s Paralysis. Their Differentiation in Use,” was published in 1915 in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal (now New England Journal of Medicine). This article is available to read in the Hayes Research Library.

From all of her accomplishments at Children’s Hospital, you might think that she was employed there. In fact, she volunteered at the Out-Patent Department of the Children’s Hospital free of charge, two afternoons a week for twenty years. There is also evidence in a 1900 report of the Benevolent Fraternity of Churches in the City of Boston that she also volunteered her services one afternoon a week to provide exercises to children with special physical needs. Immediately after graduating Colby volunteered an hour every morning to gym instruction at Perkins and continued to do so while starting and growing her business. She was one of four founding (all female) members of the Alumni Association in 1884, and served as Secretary. When Colby couldn’t attend meetings, she would donate the money she earned during the meeting to the alumni association. She also volunteered to help with large fundraising events and alumni-related initiatives.

View of the Colby Gymnasium, part of the Lower School at the Perkins circa 1930.
View of the Colby Gymnasium, part of the Lower School at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, MA, circa 1930. Two boys are positioned at the rings which hang from the ceiling, and others are lined on bars along the walls.

Colby died in 1918 having worked up to the very last day of her life. She was 59. At the request of the Perkins Alumni Association, the gymnasium at the Kindergarten was named the Colby Gymnasium because as they put it, “Jennie Colby had made a career in the field of curative gymnastics and left behind the gratitude of a generation of Boston people she helped.” 

Lenna D. Swinerton, Medical Gymnast in the Department of Physical Training at Perkins had this remembrance of Colby, “She used to say that the advantage afforded by this school were worth more to her than better vision could have been.”

Pricilla Reynolds, Director of the clinic at Children’s Hospital where Colby worote the following about her: “For many years she had her own gymnasium and school of massage and her private work was kept up to the last. In all this work she was much handicapped by poor eyesight and ill health. Think of the energy and the spirit necessary for such an active life–school, hospital, and private work never finished until late at night. here certainly is a striking example of what one woman who gives herself unselfishly and devotedly to a cause.”


A Beneficient Life: Tributes to the Memory of Jennie M. Colby, Graduate of Perkins Institution, 1920. Available on the Internet Archive.

71st Annual Report of The Benevolent Fraternity of Churches in the City of Boston. Available on the Internet Archive.

The Lantern, June 13th, 1935. Available on the Internet Archive.

Outlook for the Blind, Autumn 1921. Available on Google Books.

Suggested citation

Hale, Jen. “The amazing Jennie Colby.” Perkins Archives Blog, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown MA. August 6, 2018.

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