Mary Heard Ellis, teacher and social reformer, one of four children of banker W. F. Heard, was born in December 1878 in Cleburne, Texas. She went at age sixteen to the University of Texas, where she received a degree in English. While at the university she met Alexander Caswell Ellis, a professor of education, whom she married in July 1901. The Ellises, who had no children, made Austin their home until they moved to Ohio in 1926.
Throughout her life, often working jointly with her husband, Mary Ellis advocated social causes that she believed enhanced individual dignity. She was active in the woman suffrage movement in Texas, and in 1918, after Texas women had received the right to vote in primaries, she was a major fund-raiser in Annie Webb Blanton's successful campaign for state superintendent of public instruction. In 1918–19 she served as president of the Austin Equal Suffrage Association. Later Mrs. Ellis was a member of the League of Women Voters.
She also taught in Austin public schools, at the University of Texas, and at Cleveland College, Ohio. The latter, the downtown branch of Case Western Reserve University, was an adult-education facility that her husband directed from 1926 to 1941. In addition to her teaching duties there, she was a dean in her husband's administration. In 1927 she received a master's degree from the University of Texas.
After retiring from Cleveland College in 1941, the Ellises returned to Texas. After Alexander's death in 1948, Mary continued the couple's longstanding commitment to mental-health programs by organizing a mental-health collection in Alexander Ellis's memory at the Austin Public Library. To establish the collection she contributed money she had received from the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, as well as books and work. Within ten years the collection included more than 700 books and was widely used.
Mary Ellis served briefly on the Democratic State Executive Committee in 1950. She was also a member of the Travis County Democratic Women's Association, the Hogg Foundation, and the Texas Society for Mental Hygiene. She died in Austin on Nov. 21, 1961.