Henry Steel Olcott

Colonel Henry Steel Olcott (1832–1907), founder and first president of the Theosophical Society, was the first well-known person of European ancestry to make a formal conversion to Buddhism. His subsequent actions as president of the Theosophical Society helped create a renaissance of study of Buddhism. He is still honoured in Sri Lanka for these efforts.


As a child, Olcott lived on his father's New Jersey farm. During his teens he attended the College of the City of New York and Columbia University, where he joined the St. Anthony Hall fraternity, a milieu of well-known people, until his father's business failed during 1851. In 1860 he married Mary Epplee Morgan daughter of the rector of Trinity parish, New Rochelle; they had three sons. Olcott was agricultural editor of the New York Tribune (1858–60), and sometimes submitted newspaper articles on various other subjects. He served in the US Army during the Civil War and afterward was admitted as a lawyer in New York City. With the rank of Colonel, he was special commissioner in the U.S. War and Navy departments (1863–66). He published a genealogy of his family that traced him back to Thomas Olcott, one of the founders of Hartford, Connecticut in 1636.

Some of his newspaper articles concerned the Spiritualist movement. In 1874 while writing a series of articles on the seances of the Eddy brothers of Chittenden, Vermont he met Helena Blavatsky when both visited the Eddy farm. In early 1875 Olcott was asked by important Spiritualists to investigate an accusation of fraud against the mediums Jenny and Nelson Holmes, who had claimed to materialize the famous spirit control Katie King (Doyle 1926: volume 1, 269-277).

Theosophical Society

During 1875 September, Henry, Helena and others, notably William Quan Judge formed the Theosophical Society. During December 1878 they left New York in order to move the headquarters of the Society to India, where it later was established at Adyar. They landed at Bombay Feb 16 1879. Olcott acted as adviser to the committee appointed to design a Buddhist flag. Blavatsky eventually went to live in London where she died, but Henry stayed in India and pursued the work of the society there. The Theosophical society built several Buddhist schools in Sri Lanka, most notably Ananda College, Dharmaraja College, Maliyadeva College and Mahinda College. After his death, Blavatsky's protege Annie Besant became the manager of the Society.

Olcott Road, a major street in Colombo, has been named for him. A statue of him has been built in Maradana. He is still remembered fondly by many Sri Lankans.


  • Sorgho and Imphee, the Chinese and African sugar canes; A. O. Moore, New York 1857
  • Outlines of the first course of Yale agricultural lectures; C. M. Saxton, Barker & Co., New York 1860
  • Descendents of Thomas Olcott, 1872
  • Human Spirits and Elementaries; 1875
  • People from the other world; American Publishing Co., Hartford 1875
  • A Buddhist catechism; Madras 1881
  • Theosophy, Religion, and Occult Science; New York 1885
  • Old Diary Leaves (6 volumes)
  • The Hindu Dwaita Catechism; 1886
  • The Golden Rules of Buddhism; 1887
  • The kinship between Hinduism and Buddhism; The Maha-Bodhi society, Calcutta 1893
  • The Poor Pariah; Addison & Co., Madras 1902
  • The Life of the Budha and its Lessons; 1912
  • Old diary leaves, Inside the occult, the true story of Madame H. P. Blavatsky; Running Press, Philadelphia 1975 (reprint); ISBN 0-914294-31-8



  • Doyle, Arthur Conan. The History of Spiritualism. New York: G.H. Doran, Co. Volume 1: 1926 Volume 2: 1926
  • Guruge, Ananda W. P. Free at Last in Paradis, Authuhouse, Bloomington, Ind, 1998
  • From the Living Fountains of Buddhism, Colombo, Minitry of cultural Affairs, 1984
  • Return to Righteousness, Coilombo, Minitry of Culturasl Affairs, 1965/1991
  • Motwani, Kewal: Colonel H. S. Olcott, a forgotten page in American history; Ganesh, Madras 1955 (English)
  • Murphet, Howard: Hammer on the mountain, life of Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907); Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton 1972; ISBN 0-8356-0210-9
  • Prothero, Stephen R.: The white Buddhist, the Asian odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott; Indiana University Press, Bloomington 1996; ISBN 0-253-33014-9
  • Williams, Gertrude Marvin. Priestess of the Occult, Madame Blavatsky. New York : A. A. Knopf, 1946.

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