Ellen Browning Scripps, whose fortune derived from the Scripps family’s newspaper empire, is not well known outside of southern California, largely because she confined her extensive philanthropy to local causes. Indeed, when she was approached in 1914 and offered the opportunity to support an effort in Cleveland, Ohio, she declined with the simple response: “Charity begins at home.”
She was born in London to James Scripps and his second wife, Ellen Saunders, in 1836. When she was seven years old, three years after her mother had died, the Scripps family left England for the United States, where they settled in Illinois. Her father then married again and had five more children, bringing the number of his children to 13. Ellen was 19 years older than her youngest stepbrother, Edward Willis (known as E. W.), and had a particularly formative influence on him.
As a child, Ellen took full advantage of her father’s library, and she continued her pursuit of knowledge longer than any of her siblings did. After spending two years teaching—and saving—she was able to enroll at Knox College in 1856. She spent three years at Knox before returning to teaching, but soon her brothers’ increasing involvement in the newspaper business led her to work first as a copy editor and then as a columnist.
In 1873, when her brother James founded the Detroit Evening News, she invested her savings from teaching; when the paper was incorporated, she received a large number of shares. Consequently, she was able to provide assistance to E. W. when he founded The Penny Press in Cleveland, in 1878. Her investments in her brothers’ businesses, which would expand steadily, provided her with financial independence. The Scripps family’s successes led, however, to many difficulties. Ellen once wrote to E. W. that she wished she could be “where the air that I breathe will not be tainted, nor my ears polluted with the foul smell and sound of money, and the baseness of spirit it engenders.”
It had occurred to Ellen that California might provide something like that respite. She had never visited the state before 1890, when she traveled to see her sister Annie who, in search of healing for rheumatoid arthritis, had established herself in a utopian community in Alameda. Her stepbrother Fred toured the state with her. They ended their trip in San Diego, which Ellen admired and which Fred was fascinated by, imagining it beneficial to his health and as offering him new financial beginnings. When they left California, Fred decided to buy a ranch there. His more successful sibling E. W. realized that he would have to finance Fred’s project if it were ever to come to pass, so he went to San Diego to see it for himself.
By 1891, E. W. had purchased property and Fred had established himself in southern California. Within a few months, E. W. and Will, their wives, and their mother followed him, and they began construction on a house that was meant to be a home for the entire family. After the extended family had lived in the complex they called Miramar for a year, Ellen found herself discontentedly asking E. W., “Are there any two of us as a family who could live happily and contentedly together?” Shortly thereafter Will and Fred moved to properties of their own.
In 1896, Ellen bought land in La Jolla and had a house built on it, which she named South Moulton Villa after the street on which her family had lived in London. She rapidly became immersed in the life of the town, joining numerous clubs and going to lectures and concerts. In her conscious effort to enjoy the simplicity of life in the small town, she contributed to its becoming known as an active yet unpretentious place “where you could wear out your old clothes.”
When George Scripps died in 1900, he left the bulk of his estate to his sister. Ellen wanted to use the money in a way that would honor him. In 1903, she and E. W. decided to assist William Ritter, a Berkeley biologist, in founding the Marine Biological Association of San Diego. Ellen gave it a sizeable endowment, and the Scripps family provided its entire operating budget until it was taken over by the University of California at San Diego and renamed the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
Ellen had been an early supporter of women’s suffrage, and she worked to make better education available to women. In 1909, the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles approached her to ask for help in founding a college preparatory school for girls. She initially donated land for the Bishop’s School and commissioned its first building; for years afterward, she remained one of its most important supporters. And in 1926, she endowed what would become Scripps College, a part of the Claremont Colleges, which she had helped to found. She also commissioned the La Jolla Women’s Club’s headquarters, the building that would become the La Jolla Community Center, and the country’s first public playground.
In 1911, Ellen became a member of the Egypt Exploration Fund; she began providing support for its expeditions in 1919. (Her efforts resulted in the San Diego Museum’s Ancient Egyptian collection.) She also worked to preserve the area that would become Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, and helped finance the new headquarters of the San Diego Natural History Museum. In 1923, she gave the San Diego Zoo an aviary and an animal research hospital. And in 1922, she founded the Scripps Memorial Hospital and the Scripps Metabolic Clinic, prompted by dissatisfaction with the care she received for a broken leg.
Education in various forms for the general public, and particularly for women, was a central focus of Ellen Browning Scripps’s philanthropic work. From her youth until her death in 1932 at the age of 95, she saw herself primarily as an investor in human capital, rather than as an almsgiver. The charity that she launched “at home” was her fulfillment of familial and civic duty, and an investment in persons and causes she believed would prove beneficial to all.
~ Monica Klem