Henry Steel Olcott was born on August 2, 1832 into a pious Presbyterian household in Orange, New Jersey. In his teens he attended the College of the City of New York and Columbia University.
At the age of 20, he became a convert to spiritualism. Soon he was championing a host of other causes, including antislavery, agricultural reform, women's rights, cremation, and temperance.
At the age of 28 in 1860, he married Mary Epplee Morgan, daughter of the Rector of Trinity Parish and they had three sons. He earned a reputation in the field of agricultural education by establishing a school farm and lecturing on agriculture at Yale University. Olcott was agricultural editor of the New York Tribune.
When the Civil War began in 1863, he joined the Army, serving initially as a special commissioner investigating allegations of fraud in the New York Disbursement office.
Having achieved the rank of Colonel, he was seconded to the U.S. War and Navy Departments in Washington.
He was commended for his work by the Secretary of the Navy. Following Abraham Lincoln's assassination, he was a member of the team that investigated the President's murder.
In 1865, he resigned his Commission and returned to New York where he studied for, and became a member of the Bar, specialising in Customs and excise and insurance cases, he became a recognised expert in this area of law.
In 1874, he had the opportunity to meet Russian occultist Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and one year later he and Blavatsky co-founded the Theosophical Society, an organisation that would soon play a major vote in introducing Americans to the ancient wisdom of the East. Olcott became President, Blavatsky its Corresponding Secretary in the Society.
In May 16, 1880, Olcott and Blavatsky arrived in Colombo. A large crowd welcomed them. White cloths were spread for them from the Jetty steps to the road where carriages were ready, and 1,000 flags were waved in welcome.
Several days later on May 25, at the Wijananda Temple in Galle, Olcott and Blavatsky took Pansil by reciting in broken Pali the Three Refuges and the Five Precepts of Theravada Buddhism and becoming the First European-Americans to publicly and formally become Buddhists.
Olcott started to promote the Buddhist Theosophical Society (BTS) in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and also to purify and reform Buddhism of practices that had crept into the popular tradition.
Olcott's second visit to Ceylon was in April 1881. Together with Ven. Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera, who had spearheaded the first phase of the Sinhalese Buddhist revival, he crisscrossed the Western Province for eight months in a bullock cart of his own design. He sold merit cards and solicited subscriptions to support his National Education Fund, wrote and distributed anti-Christian and pro-Buddhist tracts and secured support for his educational reforms.
Olcott's great achievement was to start a school for Buddhist children. Ananda College had its roots 128 years ago in that historic year 1886 at No. 61, Maliban Street, Pettah, when she started as a Buddhist High School and C.W. Leadbeater, a foreigner and convert to Buddhism became the First Principal. There was 37 students enrolled to the school. Gradually Olcott founded Buddhist schools in main cities, such as in Kandy Dharmaraja College in Galle Mahinda College, in Matara Rahula College and in Kurunegala Maliyadewa College.
He also established the Young Mens Buddhist Association and lobbied for recognition of the Buddha's birthday (Vesak Poya Day) as a national holiday and acted as adviser to a committee appointed to design a Buddhist Flag.
Olcott pioneered unity between different Buddhist communities. He travelled to Burma and to Japan and he advocated the formation of a World Buddhist League. In 1950 when the world Buddhist Fellowship was established, it adopted Olcott's flag as it's emblem.
Colonel Henry Steel Olcott's life ended at age of 75 in India on February 17,1907.
Senior Old Anandians have taken the initiative in organising a ceremony to mark Olcott Day which falls today at the college premises.