As one of the "Seven Sisters," and a staple on yearly lists of America's top liberal arts colleges, Northampton's Smith College is well-renowned. Less well-known is the story of the woman whose name the institution bears.

Smith College was set in motion by Sophia Smith, on the strength of her family fortune, and a stroke of her pen, 145 years ago this week. All it took to get the nation’s largest liberal arts college for women off the ground were a few remarkable twists of fate, and the conviction of one remarkable woman, at a time when the idea of women being educated was far from accepted.

"This was a unique event," said John M. Connolly, a retired Smith College professor and former acting president of the school, who chaired the Sophia Smith bicentennial committee back in 1996. "Sophia Smith, as far as we can tell, is the first woman in history to establish a liberal arts college, with the goal — as she said explicitly in her will — to provide to women the educational opportunities that are currently provided to men in our colleges, and she had in mind Harvard Yale and Amherst."

Smith was one of six children born to a wealthy farming family in Hatfield, Massachusetts.

"She had, in many ways, an unremarkable life," Connolly said. "She was largely self-educated. She had the usual education that a girl from a well-to-do family would have at that time; she wasn’t very active in the public sphere."

Add to this the fact that by age 40, Smith had started to go deaf. All signs pointed to obscurity as her legacy.

"What changed her life forever, and led to the founding of Smith College, was a kind of family accident," Connolly said.

In 1861, when she was in her 60s, the last of Smith’s five siblings died. None of them had any living children. That left the unmarried Smith as the sole heir of her family’s collective fortune. She was suddenly very rich — and completely alone.

"She regarded this whole process, in the 1860s, 'What to do with my sudden wealth,' as a spiritual enigma," Connolly said. "That is to say, she had to figure out why it was that God had done this to her or for her."

Smith sought counsel — and found a partner — in her young pastor, Rev. John M. Greene. The two talked through a number of ideas over the years. Smith, inspired by the recent establishment of Vassar College, favored starting a college for women right here in Massachusetts.

"Green didn’t think it was a good idea," Connolly said. "But letters were written to various prominent educators, including the president of Harvard, all of who tried to dissuade her from this notion."

They succeeded. Instead, Smith would use the money to start a school for the deaf. Then fate stepped in once again.

"In the latter part of the 1860s, Alexander Graham Bell and a man named Clark established a school for the deaf here in Northhampton," Connolly said.

So Smith returned, with renewed resolve, to her original plan. She named a board of trustees that included Green. On March 8, 1870, Smith established in her last will and testament that her fortune would be used to create a woman’s college in Northampton. Three months later, she was dead. The board carried the task to completion and in 1876, Smith College opened its doors to its first class: 14 women.

"These students were going to show the world that they were every bit as good as their brothers," Connolly said.

Smith’s impressive roster of alumni includes Julia Child, Nancy Reagan, Gloria Steinem and Sylvia Plath, to name just a few. Connolly says that nearly 150 years on, Smith would approve of how her money was spent.

"If she stepped into Neilson library here, which by the way is the largest undergraduate library in the country, she would say, 'Ohhhh my, yes. This is what I had in mind,'” he said.

If you have a tale of forgotten Massachusetts history to share, or there's something making you just plain curious, email me at curiositydesk@wgbh.org. I might just look into it for you.