Abbott's siblings included poet Amy Lowell, astronomer Percival Lowell (Harvard 1876), and early activist for prenatal care Elizabeth Lowell Putnam. They were the great-grandchildren of John Lowell (Harvard 1760) and, on their mother's side, the grandchildren of Abbott Lawrence. As well as great-great nephew of Francis Cabot Lowell. In retrospect, he is a controversial figure because of his racist, anti-semitic, and homophobic policies for Harvard while president.
Lowell graduated from Noble and Greenough School in 1873 and went on to attend Harvard College. He graduated in 1877 with highest honors in mathematics, and from Harvard Law School in 1880. He practiced law from 1880 to 1897 in partnership with his cousin, Francis Cabot Lowell, with whom he wrote Transfer of Stock in Corporations (1884).
Lowell also wrote Essays on Government (1889), Governments and Parties in Continental Europe (2 vols., 1896), Colonial Civil Service (1900; with an account by H. Morse Stephens of the East India College at Haileybury), and The Government of England (2 vols., 1908).
In 1897, Lowell became lecturer, and in 1898, professor of government at Harvard.
Lowell succeeded his father as Trustee of the Lowell Institute in 1900. And in 1909, he succeeded Charles William Eliot as president of the university. In the same year, he became president of the American Political Science Association.
Lowell's election as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters reflects the regard in which he was held in his own lifetime.
As president, Lowell continued pressing for the evolution of "concentrations" (Harvard's name for academic majors), which he had begun to develop while still a professor. His predecessor, Charles W. Eliot, had replaced the single standardized undergraduate course with a plethora of electives; Lowell encouraged, and eventually required, students to concentrate the bulk of their studies in one academic field. Although headed in very different directions, both Eliot's reforms and Lowell's had wide impact on higher education throughout the US.
Lowell is remembered for establishing the Harvard Extension School and creating Harvard College's residential house system (see Harvard College#House system), which today remains a central part of the undergraduate experience. He also co-founded the Harvard Society of Fellows.
Among the new campus buildings of Lowell's tenure is the President's House (today Loeb House) at 17 Quincy Street, which Lowell commissioned from his cousin Guy Lowell (Harvard 1892); it remained the residence of succeeding Harvard Presidents until 1971.
Lowell's contributions to Harvard and to American society have been revisited in the years since his death. Many have denounced Lowell for a wide variety of actions and statements which reflected his apparent bigotry towards homosexuals, Jews, African-Americans, and other ethnic minorities. In 2005, a small group of students, calling themselves the Lowell Liberation Front, lobbied unsuccessfully to have two likenesses removed from Lowell House, a Harvard house named for Lowell's family.
One author describes the result thus: "The committee...concluded that the trial and judicial process had been just, 'on the whole', and that clemency was not warranted. It only fueled controversy over the fate of the two men, and Harvard, because of Lowell's role, became stigmatized, in the words of one of its alumni, as 'Hangman's House.'
A 2002 article by Amit R. Paley in The Harvard Crimson focused on Lowell's role in a secret Harvard "court" that expelled eight students and one philosophy Ph.D. candidate for being homosexual or for merely associating with homosexuals-if not homosexual themselves. Two of the expelled students, Cyril Wilcox and Ernest Cummings, committed suicide that year. Another, Keith Smerage, killed himself 10 years later.
This compelled Harvard President Lawrence Summers to reflect, more than 80 years after the fact: "These reports of events long ago are extremely disturbing. They are part of a past that we have rightly left behind." Summers apologized, saying "I want to express our deep regret for the way this situation was handled, as well as the anguish the students and their families must have experienced eight decades ago." He continued, "Whatever attitudes may have been prevalent then, persecuting individuals on the basis of sexual orientation is abhorrent and an affront to the values of our university. We are a better and more just community today because those attitudes have changed as much as they have."