Helen Kirby, first dean of women at the University of Texas, was born in Mobile, Alabama, on January 17, 1837, the third child of Dr. Richard J. and Margaret M. (Conner) Swearingen. The family later moved to Mississippi, and in 1848 settled in Chappell (now Chapel) Hill, Texas, where Dr. Swearingen became a founder of Soule University. Helen was educated at home by her mother until 1854, when she entered Wesleyan Female College in Macon, Georgia; she received a B.A. in 1855 and an honorary M.A. ten years later. On April 18, 1858, at Chappell Hill, she married Jared E. Kirby, a wealthy planter, and subsequently settled on a large estate, Alta Vista, near Hempstead. The couple had three sons. After her husband died in 1865 Helen Kirby operated a girls' boarding school, Alta Vista Institute, in her home from 1867 to 1875. In the latter year she moved with her sons to Austin, where she taught for a year at the Stacy family's private school. In 1876 she reestablished Alta Vista Institute in her home in Austin.
In September 1884 she accepted the position of "Lady Assistant" (after declining the title of "Matron") at the University of Texas, then in its second year of existence and confronting discipline problems in its experiment with coeducation. She remained in charge of women students for the next thirty-five years. Beginning in 1903 she held the title of dean of women, and when she retired in 1919 she became dean emerita. Shortly before her death she established the Gertrude Swearingen scholarship in honor of her sister, who had taught with her at Alta Vista Institute.
Stories of Helen Kirby's standards as dean became part of campus lore, and she was an important influence on the education of two generations of women at the University of Texas. In 1904 the women students and alumnae presented the university with a marble medallion of Kirby executed by Elisabet Ney, and in 1911 the Women's Council commissioned Robert J. Onderdonk to paint her portrait for the university. The Texas chapter of the American Association of University Women established the Helen Marr Kirby Fellowship in her honor. Also named for her is Kirby Hall, a dormitory for women at UT; in 1976 the dorm became a private elementary and high school. Mrs. Kirby was president of the Methodist Women's Mission Society for more than twenty-five years. Her son R. H. Kirby was president of the state Anti-Saloon League in 1917. She died in Austin on October 29, 1921.