Mary Edna Gearing, home economist and educator, was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on April 22, 1872, the daughter of F. A. G. and Emily Virginia (Marston) Gearing. After graduating from high school in Houston, Texas, in 1888, she studied under private tutors, and between 1905 and 1909 she took summer courses in domestic science at Columbia University. In 1906 the Houston School Board appointed her to establish the first home economics program, one of the earliest in the state, for the city's public schools, and two years later she was made supervisor of domestic science and arts for the school system. In 1911 Gearing headed the domestic science department at New York University, but she returned to Texas at the request of University of Texas president Sidney Edward Mezes in January of 1912 to begin a home economics program for the university. As an associate professor in the School of Domestic Economy, Gearing taught her first courses in a two-room wooden outbuilding. She promoted the new program by staging a series of annual home economics weeks, featuring special lecturers and demonstrations, as a community and state service. She was the first woman to hold the ranks of professor and department chairman at the University of Texas, and she nurtured and shaped the School of Domestic Economy. By 1921 the name was changed to the Department of Home Economics. When Gearing retired in 1942, after thirty-one years as chairman, the department offered six majors and included a food technology research division and an established graduate program. Gearing specialized in family economics and was an early advocate of establishing campus nursery schools to serve as laboratories in child development for home economics students. In 1927 she helped the university establish the first nursery school in Texas with a grant from the state health department, and by 1929 the Department of Home Economics was operating the nursery with university funding. After participating in the White House Conference on Child Health and Protection in Washington, D.C., in 1930, Gearing attempted to establish a Foundation for Child Welfare and Parent Education at the University of Texas, but the Great Depression frustrated her efforts to raise the necessary $500,000. She planned to resume fundraising after her retirement, but these plans were interrupted by World War II. The terms of her will, which left three bequests to the university, specified that proceeds from the sale of her house be used to further a Child Welfare and Parent Education Foundation.
Mary Gearing was one of a small group of teachers that met yearly at Lake Placid, New York, between 1902 and 1909 to discuss education to improve the quality and standards of individual and family life. The Lake Placid group became the nucleus of the American Home Economics Association. Gearing was a founding member and was elected to honorary life membership in 1939. She headed the Urban Food Conservation Program for the United States Department of Agriculture during World War I, and in 1918 took a leave of absence from teaching to serve with Herbert Hoover in the War Food Administration. Gearing was a founding member of the Texas Home Economics Association and served as its first president; under her direction it developed and published a syllabus outlining a statewide course of study in home economics for elementary and secondary schools. On her retirement, the Texas Home Economics Association established a two-year Mary E. Gearing Scholarship at the University of Texas Nursery School in recognition of her interest in the field of child development and her contributions to home economics. She was also a member of Omicron Nu, the American Association of University Professors, and the Texas State Teachers Association. Mary Gearing died in Houston on May 10, 1946, and was buried in Glenwood Cemetery. In 1976 the Home Economics Building at the University of Texas at Austin was renamed to honor her, and in 1981 the regents of the University of Texas System established the Mary E. Gearing Endowed Lectureship in the Department of Home Economics.