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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University November 3, 2008 | Vol. 38 No. 10
Tales of a Victorian Maverick

Author Kathleen Waters Sander signs books about Mary Elizabeth Garrett with a John Singer Sargent portrait of her subject behind her. The painting's permanent home is the Welch Medical Library on the East Baltimore campus.
Photo by Jay VanRensselaer / HIPS

How one woman shaped medical education and philanthropy in America

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

In 1887, the still preteen Johns Hopkins University and its hospital sibling faced dire prospects. Due to the collapse of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad stock dividend, the university had lost nearly 75 percent of its financial holdings overnight. Income from its B&O Railroad stock, which founder Johns Hopkins had expected would cover operating costs, had dried up at a time when the university — opened in 1876 — was just getting started, and the 13-building Johns Hopkins Hospital was still under construction.

In this harsh economic climate, plans for a modern School of Medicine, a vision of the university's founder that was to be opened simultaneously with the hospital, had to be put on hold.

Mary Elizabeth Garrett found this unacceptable.

The youngest child and only daughter of B&O Railroad mogul John Work Garrett — Johns Hopkins' protege — the 34-year-old Mary shared her father's commitment to realizing Hopkins' dream of a medical school. Since social convention prohibited her from following in her father's footsteps in business, Garrett dedicated herself to promoting women's rights, using her status and massive wealth to help achieve her lofty goals.

The life and times of this pioneering woman are detailed in the new book Mary Elizabeth Garrett: Society and Philanthropy in the Gilded Age, published by the Johns Hopkins University Press and launched last Wednesday at an event at Evergreen Museum & Library, a former Garrett family home.

The book's author, Kathleen Waters Sander, paints a rich portrait of a shy but determined woman — and lover of cats — who bucked convention at every turn and left behind a legacy that lives on today.

In May 1890, Garrett and four other women — M. Carey Thomas, Mary Gwinn, Elizabeth King and Julia Rogers — organized the Women's Medical School Fund Committee to raise what would be the $500,000 needed to open the school. Women in Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, New York, San Francisco and other cities eventually joined with the five Baltimore women, all unmarried, wealthy, well-educated and devoted to the new feminist movement.

The committee would raise $100,000, and in December 1892 Garrett offered more than $350,000 of her own funds to complete the endowment. She made several stipulations to the gift: that women be admitted on the same terms as men, the school would be graduate level, and students would have a background in the sciences and be proficient in French and German. She also insisted that a building be erected to memorialize women's national efforts to elevate medical standards in the United States.

The Johns Hopkins trustees and President Daniel Coit Gilman were at first reluctant to accept the demands but eventually realized that this was an offer they couldn't afford to refuse.

The money the women raised enabled the School of Medicine to open and to enroll its first class in October 1893. The gift also ushered in the modern standards of American medicine and philanthropy.

"Her actions had great ripple effects," Sander said. "First, it gets women in the door of medical schools on a national level, as other schools soon follow suit. She also changed medical philanthropy in general. Other major philanthropists of the day — John D. Rockefeller Jr., George Eastman and others- -begin to sit up and take notice of the Johns Hopkins model of medicine. Up until that point, there had been little interest in medicine as it was only at the initial stages of promising great cures."

The book's 360 pages recount Garrett's life and re-examine the great social and political movements of the age, through the Civil War to the early 20th century.

Believing that advanced education was the key to women's betterment, in 1885 Garrett also helped found and sustain the Bryn Mawr School, the prestigious girl's preparatory school in Baltimore.

Her philanthropic gifts to Bryn Mawr College at the turn of the 20th century helped transform the modest Quaker school into a renowned women's college.

Garrett, a great supporter of women's suffrage, worked tirelessly throughout her life to gain equal rights for women.

Sander, the author of The Business of Charity: The Woman's Exchange Movement, 1832-1900 (University of Illinois Press, 1998), received her PhD in American studies from the University of Maryland. She has spent most of her professional career in development and in the 1990s was director of development for the Department of Medicine at Johns Hopkins.

Sander said that part of the inspiration for the book, which she began researching in 1998, was the small Garrett exhibit she passed by during her days on the East Baltimore campus. The collection of papers, photos and old bricks was all that remained of the Women's Fund Memorial Building, the initial home for the School of Medicine that was torn down in 1979 to make way for the Preclinical Teaching Building.

"I had determined back then that I was going to tell her story," she said. "I was also very interested in the history of women's philanthropy and kept coming across her name when I was working on The Business of Charity. I thought her story was just compelling and worth telling. I also thought that through her story I could connect the dots on the relationships between other philanthropists in Baltimore at the time."

Robert J. Brugger, history/regional book editor at the JHU Press, said that Sander's portrait of this pioneering philanthropist is the first to recognize Garrett and her contributions to equality in America.

"So little has been written of her, but she is one of those late-19th-century figures whose shadow remains quite recognizable," Brugger said. "This book was a natural fit for us, as it pulls together the history of Baltimore, philanthropy and Johns Hopkins Medicine. It also offers up a glimpse, by proxy, of Johns Hopkins the man, who we know very little about due to the fact that he destroyed nearly all of his personal papers."

Sander said that she has always respected Garrett, but the book allowed her to grow quite fond of her subject.

"I see her as a very kind, brilliant person who did all these great things but wanted everyone else to take credit," she said. "She never wanted her name on anything. She wanted things to happen, but not be in the spotlight. I really admired that trait about her."

The book, $45, is available at major bookstores and through the JHU Press Web site,


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