Abby Maria Wood Bliss was born to an aristocratic family in Westminster, Massachusetts on October 12 1830. In 1833, after the death of her parents at an early age, Abby moved to live with her uncle in Amherst, Massachusetts. There she became a close friend with Emily Dickinson, a prominent American Poet, forming "The Five" group including herself, Abiah Root, Harriet Merrill, Sarah Tracy, and Emily as members. She was known playfully by her friends and descendants as “Westminster Abby”. Abby and Emily shared a Latin text book, The Works of Virgil, published in 1838, one that the Bliss family tradition says Emily gave to Abby as a parting memento of their friendship when Abby later set sail to Syria. The book had the inscription; “Afterwards you may rejoice at the remembrance of these (our school days). When I'm far far away then think of me—E. Dickinson”. Their friendship lasted for a long time, for even though Emily Dickinson secluded herself from the world part of her life, Abby Bliss was one of the few who was able to see her during 1873 when she visited Amherst.
In Amherst, Abby also got to know Daniel Bliss (first president of Syrian Protestant College, now AUB), class of 1852 and an 1855 graduate of Andover Theological Seminary where he trained to be a missionary. When Daniel proposed, her uncle opposed their marriage because of young Abby’s frail health which might not withstand missionary life. He then locked her up in her room, but Emily, throwing pebbles at Abby’s window, shouted up encouragement to her friend, “Don’t give in, Abby! Don’t give in!”
Daniel Bliss & Abby Wood were married on November 23, 1855 and left for Beirut 2 weeks later aboard the steamer Sultana, reaching Beirut on February 7, 1856. They lived in Syria for nearly 60 years and she devotedly loved the land and the people of her adoption (Jessup, 1910). They initially resided in Aley where they started learning Arabic and teaching in a small missionary school. They came to understand the people among whom they worked and it was later clear to them that education, not mere training, was needed if native leaders were to be developed. With that in mind, and with the approval of their missionary colleagues, Abby and Daniel Bliss toured the United States and the United Kingdom in 1862 in order to raise funds to establish a new Protestant College. William Dodge, like many others, expressed interest and the funds were allocated to build the Syrian Protestant College that was established in 1866 (Khoury, 1992).
Throughout the initial years of the college, Abby supported her husband and involved herself in improving the institution. Her helpful personal guidance and support played a crucial role as the college started off. She changed the president’s residence to a center for intellectual and social stimulus and practical encouragement. The interest of the college stood first in her efforts. She knew the students personally and always thought of them as her children.
Abby Bliss had a hobby of collecting plants and pressing them on special sheets. Her herbarium is still extant at the Post Herbarium. She often sent duplicate specimens from her collections to her close friend Emily Dickinson in Amherst College. Knowing that Emily Dickinson herbarium is in Amherst, it would be interesting to compare the two herbaria and find out how many specimens in Emily’s collection came actually from the Middle East through Abby (Hirschhorn, 2000).
Hirschhon, N., 2000. Emily Dickinson International Society Bulletin. Vol. 12, No. 2.
Khoury, G. Y. 1992. The Founding Fathers of the American University of Beirut. Beirut: American University of Beirut.
Jessup, H. H., 1910. Fifty-three years in Syria. New York: Fleming H. Revell. 2 volumes.