Mary Elizabeth Garrett ranks among the nation’s most significant benefactors of higher education for women. Born in 1853 to wealth and privilege, Garrett was the third child (and only daughter) of railroad tycoon John Work Garrett, the president of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Mary Garrett’s inheritance would make her one of the wealthiest women in the United States, but it was her business savvy and shrewd philanthropy that helped her to achieve some of the greatest social improvements of her generation.
As John Garrett’s daughter, Mary Elizabeth could not enter the family business or exert influence on their financial empire. She nevertheless gained invaluable business training as her father’s personal secretary. Her father’s favorite, Mary Garrett would accompany him on many of his business trips, recording his correspondence and meeting some of the most influential businessmen of the time, including titans like Andrew Carnegie, J. Pierpont Morgan, and Cornelius Vanderbilt.
Garrett cleverly mastered the art of "coercive philanthropy."
John Garrett also taught his daughter by example in his philanthropy. Garrett’s giving was influenced by his friend George Peabody, and he maintained close ties with Johns Hopkins, serving as a trustee of both Hopkins’s university and hospital. Mary Garrett would employ the lessons she gleaned from the example of her father and his friends when she inherited nearly $2 million upon her father’s death and became a philanthropist in her own right.
Mary Garrett relied heavily on her intimate circle of friends, known as the “Friday Evening.” The intellectually curious group included M. Carey Thomas, Mamie Gwinn, Elizabeth “Bessie” King, and Julia Rogers—all but one of them daughters of trustees of Johns Hopkins University, the hospital, or both. It was with this group that Garrett collaborated on her two key philanthropic achievements: the Bryn Mawr School and Johns Hopkins Medical School.
The Bryn Mawr School was Garrett’s first philanthropic undertaking. The Friday Evening group was appalled by the lack of a serious college preparatory school for girls in Baltimore. Garrett’s inheritance provided the means to remedy the situation. They decided to act.
They named the new preparatory school for Bryn Mawr College in Philadelphia, and acquired the school’s permission to do so. (They also maintained close ties to the college, and Bryn Mawr school students were required to pass the college entrance examination in order to graduate.) Garrett not only provided the necessary funds to establish and build the school, she also closely oversaw the project. Her hands-on involvement extended to the selection of gym equipment and artwork for the school, which was located but a few blocks from Garrett’s home in Baltimore. The Friday Evening served as the governing body of the school. Garrett was its president.
Garrett and the Friday Evening then set their sights higher—the education of women at Johns Hopkins University. Garrett first attempted to open the doors of Johns Hopkins to women in 1887 by offering the university $35,000 to establish a coeducational school of science. The university president and trustees rejected her offer. Just a few years later, however, Johns Hopkins found itself on unsure financial footing. The opening of the medical school had been delayed due to insufficient funds. The Friday Evening saw an opportunity.
Garrett enlisted her friends and sought support from other influential women around the country (including Mrs. J. Pierpont Morgan, Mrs. Leland Stanford, and First Lady Mrs. Benjamin Harrison) to raise funds to approach the university with a new offer. Garrett offered the trustees $100,000 (half of which she contributed personally) to pay for the opening of the medical school on one condition: that men and women would be admitted on equal standing. The board accepted the offer, but told the group that the school could not open with less than $500,000.
When the university and the newly formed Women’s Medical Fund Committee struggled to approach this number, Garrett stepped in and covered the difference with $307,000. But her additional funding came with additional conditions. These new conditions required that the medical school be a full graduate school leading to a medical degree and that all applicants be required to have a bachelor’s degree in the field of science (neither of these stipulations were normal to medical schools in the country at the time).
Garrett’s funding and her clearly outlined conditions not only opened medical education to America’s women, they also turned Johns Hopkins into the first modern medical school in the United States. In his history of the school, Alan Chesney concludes: “To this lady, more than any other single person, save only Johns Hopkins himself, does the School of Medicine owe its being.”
Throughout the rest of her life, Garrett would continue to use her wealth and influence to promote women’s education and opportunity. She gave generously to Bryn Mawr College and later became a major funder of the cause of women’s suffrage. Her final years were spent at Bryn Mawr with her close friend M. Carey Thomas, who was president of the college, to whom Garrett left her fortune upon her death in 1915.
For her bargain with the Johns Hopkins medical school, Garrett is sometimes called America’s greatest “coercive philanthropist.” William Osler, one of the school’s four founding physicians, famously replied: “It was a pleasure to be bought.”
- Alan Mason Chesney, The Johns Hopkins Hospital and the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, A Chronicle (Johns Hopkins Press, 1943)
- Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, The Power and Passion of M. Carey Thomas (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991)
- Kathleen Waters Sander, Mary Elizabeth Garrett: Society and Philanthropy in the Gilded Age (Johns Hopkins Press, 2008)