Patron of Education: Mary Elizabeth Garrett

Mary Elizabeth Garrett

Mary Elizabeth Garrett

In the 19th century, many men have been listed as relevant in the history of philanthropy. Women on the other hand did not inherit wealth or enter into the family business, which greatly diminished their ability to be philanthropists; but in recent history, women have started to be recognized for their great humanitarian efforts. Mary Elizabeth Garrett was one such woman.

As one of the wealthiest women at the turn of the century, Mary Elizabeth was born in 1853 to railroad tycoon John Work Garrett. Though Mary would not enter into the railroad business due to the confines of her gender, she worked as a personal assistant to her father — often coming face-to-face with robber barons and great men of industry like J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie. With her quick mind and shrewd head for business, she was able to propel her philanthropic accomplishments later in life.

Her dedication to philanthropy was nature and nurture, as her father was well-known for his philanthropy — serving as trustee for Johns Hopkins university and hospital. Most likely due to her close relationship with her father, Mary continued his desire to give back, and her $2 million inheritance allowed her many opportunities to do so.

With a tight knit group of like-minded friends called the “Friday Evening”, Garrett set her sights on two institutions: Bryn Mawr School and Johns Hopkins Medical School. These initiatives, born out of the lack of college prep schools for girls in Baltimore, caused Mary Garrett to take action. A prep school named Bryn Mawr College (named after Bryn Mawr College Philadelphia), became a reality through Mary’s money, and oversight. The Friday Evening group became the governing body of the school, with Mary as its rightful president.

Another educational effort made possible through Mary’s inheritance and savvy was the option of a woman’s education at Johns Hopkins University. Though the university initially refused Mary’s contribution of $35,000 to establish co-ed classes in the school of science, a financial setback for Johns Hopkins allowed Garrett and her Friday Evening cohorts the opportunity to revisit the co-ed issue. With over $350,000, Garrett not only secured co-ed classes, Johns Hopkins would offer women who completed the courses full graduate medical degrees.

Mary Elizabeth Garrett was not a great woman because of her wealth and influence, she was a great woman for her desire to see the world through a philanthropic lens; generosity, after all, cannot be taught (or bought).  Later in life, Mary continued to give graciously to Bryn Mawr and dedicate herself to the women’s suffrage movement until her death in 1915.

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Elizabeth Creekmore is a philanthropist, humanitarian, mother and Southern culture enthusiast located in Jackson, Mississippi.