Trailblazer for women doctors

Mary Garrett and the Women's Medical School Fund transformed medical education.

March 04, 2001|By Kathleen Waters Sander

WITH A STROKE of her pen, a Baltimore philanthropist forever changed the nation's medical landscape and struck a major triumph for women's equality.

On Christmas Eve 1892, Mary Elizabeth Garrett made the last installment of a $354,000 donation that created a medical school at the Johns Hopkins University. She set several unprecedented conditions for the gift, notably that women were to be admitted "on the same terms as men" and that the medical school "shall be exclusively a Graduate School."

It was, as one commentator noted at the time, the "crowning achievement for American feminism" in the 19th century.

Nearly a century after her death, Garrett still ranks as one of the country's most influential and innovative philanthropists.

She donated nearly $2 million to various causes and organizations during her life. Among the philanthropists of her time, Garrett stands out not only for her generosity but because she used her wealth as a bargaining chip to push for women's suffrage and to advance women's roles in medicine and higher education.

She is, perhaps, best known as one of the leaders of the national women's medical movement and, specifically, the Women's Medical School Fund, which raised money to open a coeducational medical school at Johns Hopkins. With the needed financial clout from Garrett, the 19th century women's movement elevated American medicine to the world-renowned standards we know today.

Women had fought for co-educational medical training for nearly a half-century, and because of Garrett's largesse, the final battle was won at Johns Hopkins, the nation's first graduate-level research university. Two great philanthropic milestones occurred in Baltimore that made it all possible. In 1873, a Baltimore merchant, Johns Hopkins , bequeathed $7 million - the equivalent of about $100 million today - to establish a university in his name, and two decades later Garrett provided the additional money needed to start the medical school.

Money - or lack of it - was of paramount concern to the young university. The original endowment earmarked to start the much-anticipated medical school had sunk with the misfortunes of the 1890s stock market. Garrett seized the moment. Her offer proved irresistible to university trustees.

Garrett's motivations for social change reveal a great deal about the conflicts, contradictions and triumphs of women's lives a century ago. She was born on March 5, 1854, in Baltimore. Her grandfather, Robert Garrett, was one of the first merchants on the East Coast to open trade with the highly lucrative markets of the frontier towns of the interior United States.

Her father, John Work Garrett, proved even more powerful and visionary as president of the country's first major railroad, the Baltimore & Ohio, from 1858 to 1884. One observer at the time noted that "No one could commence a business venture from New York to Washington without his approval."

Mary Garrett had a unique adolescence. Unlike other wealthy young women of her era, she was immersed in the machinations of the boom-and-bust industrial capitalism of the 19th century. She traveled extensively with her father on railroad business, taking notes and drafting correspondence. As "Papa's secretary" she met the corporate titans of the United States, "the most interesting men in the country," as she later wrote. She learned firsthand how to be a shrewd business negotiator, a skill that would serve her well.

Business world closed

But when her father died in 1884, Garrett's life changed abruptly. This was probably the pivotal moment in her life and one that motivated her great philanthropies and social activism.

Society dictated that the doors of the business world - in which she might have played an active role - be closed to her. Her two older brothers easily ascended in the family's financial empire: Robert succeeded his father as president of the B&O, and T. Harrison took over the financial house of Robert Garrett & Sons, started by his grandfather. Robert lived in what is now the Engineering Society on Mount Vernon Place and T. Harrison lived in a mansion called the Evergreen, on North Charles Street near Loyola College.

But what about Mary - this bright, ambitious, inquisitive young woman? Her inheritance made her one of the country's wealthiest single women. But what would she do with her great fortune? How was she going to change the world as her father and grandfather had done?

Garrett's writings reveal that she had doubts that she'd live up to the expectations of a society that placed a great emphasis on wealthy and pretty young women marrying into the right family. She was not alone in feeling this way. Other young women of her generation who would go on to greatness later in life expressed similar misgivings. Jane Addams and Susan B. Anthony, among others, described themselves in much the same way as Garrett did: unattractive, inadequate and not meeting the mark.

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