Early Life and Young Adulthood
In Baltimore on 5 March 1854, Mary Elizabeth Garrett was born into a family that was both wealthy and committed to philanthropy. She was the youngest child and only daughter of John Work Garrett, president of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, the country’s first major railroad. She was brought up in an opulent mansion on Mount Vernon Place in Baltimore. In the mid-to-late nineteenth century, Mary Elizabeth Garrett’s father was one of the most influential men in the country. He became a close advisor to President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War and was known as the “Railroad King.” Mary Elizabeth Garrett learned early how to use her great wealth to advance women’s causes in much the same way that her grandfather and her father had built their financial and railroad empires: through clarity of vision, effective strategy, perseverance and, not least, seizing opportunities at the right time.
By many accounts, Mary Elizabeth Garrett was the favored child. Her father often said, “I wish Mary had been born a boy!” He greatly admired her business sense and keen intellect. In her teens, Mary Elizabeth Garrett’s father began including her in his travels and business meetings in the United States and abroad. In her role as “Papa’s secretary”, she met the titans of corporate America—Carnegie, Morgan, Vanderbilt, Fiske, Gould.
John W. Garrett
The Alan Mason Chesney
Medical Archives of
The Johns Hopkins Medical Institution
Through her father’s involvement with both Mr. George Peabody and Mr. Johns Hopkins, Mary Elizabeth Garrett was also exposed from an early age to the example of personal philanthropy. She grew up with the conviction that her wealth carried an obligation to help those who were less fortunate. She also learned firsthand through her father and his associates how carefully targeted philanthropy was able to effect social change.
Her father became active in philanthropic causes largely through the influence of George Peabody. Dedicated to using his fortune to improve society, Peabody was a driving force in nineteenth-century philanthropy. He and Garrett were especially drawn to charities that provided opportunities for the underprivileged to help themselves. One of Garrett’s major contributions was toward the construction of a YMCA building in Baltimore. His most significant role in philanthropy, though, was that of a steward. He urged Peabody to intercede with Johns Hopkins to advise that he make a philanthropic gift of his large fortune. In 1867, when Hopkins endowed and incorporated the university and hospital that bear his name, he selected Garrett to serve as a trustee of both institutions.
As her father’s confidante, Mary Elizabeth Garrett listened to his thoughts about these matters, as well as about business and political affairs.1 By taking notes and drafting correspondence for him, she also learned how to emulate her father’s shrewd and uncompromising business tactics—skills that would serve her well. Her father—with his position, fame, and wealth— was, undoubtedly, the greatest influence on her life.
But when John W. Garrett died in 1884, the doors of the wider world and the arena of business in which she had played an active role at his side, closed. Because she had neither a husband nor a degree, few paths seemed open to Mary Elizabeth Garrett. Her brothers easily ascended in the family’s financial empires. Her oldest brother, Robert assumed the presidency of the powerful B&O Railroad. He lived in the beautiful mansion at 9-11 Mount Vernon Place with his wife Mary Frick Garrett. Her other brother, T. Harrison, directed the family business, Robert Garrett & Sons, and lived with his wife Alice Whitridge and their three sons at the elegant Evergreen House on North Charles Street.
Mary Elizabeth Garrett inherited a fortune—nearly $2 million and three lavish estates. She was not only one of the wealthiest women in the United States, but also one of the largest female landowners in the country. When she inherited her massive fortune, she vowed to use her money, as she wrote, “to help women” by removing some of the obstacles that had stood in her way. 2
Forging Friendships in the “Friday Evening” group
The "Friday Evening"
Special Collections Department, Bryn Mawr College Library. Thomas photo collection.
Garrett had the good fortune to count among her friends a group of intellectually curious young women with progressive leanings. Most of the women came from Quaker backgrounds. They became known as the “Friday Evening”, so named for their bi-weekly meetings at each other’s homes. As a group and on their own, they would effect great change over the next half-century. The group included M. Carey Thomas, Mamie Gwinn, Elizabeth “Bessie” King, and Julia Rogers. The fathers of all but Julia Rogers served as trustees of the Johns Hopkins University, the Johns Hopkins Hospital, or both. This period of Garrett’s life, from 1885-1895, provided incubation for ideas on how to help women achieve independence and autonomy.
Establishing and Building the Bryn Mawr School
With Garrett's financial backing, the group of friends started the Bryn Mawr School for Girls in 1885. The name, Bryn Mawr, was chosen to connote the excellence represented by the Bryn Mawr College of Pennsylvania which had already established itself as one of the finest women’s colleges in the country.4 A schoolhouse near the new Johns Hopkins University campus in downtown Baltimore was selected as the first site of the school. The founders set ambitious goals for their new school: to become the first college preparatory school for girls in the United States emphasizing traditional “male” subjects such as mathematics, sciences, modern and classical languages, and physical education.
The Bryn Mawr School's state-of-the art gymnasium at the original Cathedral Street building.
Courtesy of Bryn Mawr School archives
Shortly after its founding, Garrett made plans to erect a new state-of-the-art building for the Bryn Mawr School, which she personally financed for $500,000.5 Documents of the negotiations with the contractors reveal that Mary Elizabeth Garrett was, indeed, her father's daughter.6 She drove a hard bargain and took personal interest in overseeing the project to its successful completion, examining the construction site daily to ensure that just the right paint and plaster were applied and traveling frequently to Europe to purchase statuary to fill the hallways.
Mary Elizabeth Garrett
Fratelli Pianelli, Venice.
Special Collections Department, Bryn Mawr College Library. Thomas photo collection. Verso
When the school opened in 1890, the New York Times noted, “being a thoroughly practical business woman as well as a philanthropist, she undertook the matter personally.” The national press dubbed the innovative new school, with its modern gymnasium, “Miss Garrett’s School.” The attention, however, was not all positive. At a time when women’s roles were often conflicted and polarized between marriage, domesticity and increasingly liberating opportunities, the new Bryn Mawr School, with its emphasis on scholastic achievement and preparation for higher education and careers, provided a lightning rod for condemnation as well as for praise from all sides. One Chicago critic wrote: “Why does not Miss Garrett or some other philanthropist invest a quarter of a million dollars in a model school of domestic economy, in which to prepare girls for housekeeping and home making?”7 Despite such criticism, the Bryn Mawr School provided a model for girls’ college preparation that other schools across the country soon emulated.
The Women’s Medical School Fund Campaign
Garrett and the “Friday Evening” group next turned their attention on ways to provide opportunities for women at the Johns Hopkins University. The women of the “Friday Evening” formed the Women’s Medical School Fund Committee in response to a nation-wide appeal for philanthropic assistance initiated by University president D.C. Gilman. Proposing to raise $100,000 for the endowment of the medical school if the trustees would agree to admit women on the same terms as men, the committee embarked upon a major public relations effort to promote medical education for women. When they finished, the Johns Hopkins University—and medical education in the United States—would never be the same.
The Women’s Medical School Fund Campaign
"Dear Girls" Letters
The Mary Elizabeth Garrett Fund
Enriching Bryn Mawr College
In 1893, less than a year after her final contribution to the endowment of the Johns Hopkins medical school, Garrett offered the trustees of Bryn Mawr College $10,000 annually to help with the campus plan of the new women’s college in return for the appointment of M. Carey Thomas, lifelong friend and fellow champion of women’s rights, to the presidency.8 It was an offer the trustees could not refuse. Garrett became one of Bryn Mawr’s largest benefactors, contributing more than $350,000 to keep the fledgling college solvent during its lean years. She remodeled the Deanery, home of the president, and helped to transform the campus into a model of “Collegiate Gothic,” the first of its kind on an American campus. She employed Fredrick Law Olmsted, whose designs include New York’s Central Park and the campus of Stanford University, to help with the campus plan.
Participation in the Suffrage Movement
After placing Bryn Mawr and the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine on firm financial footing, Garrett turned her attention to the suffrage movement, attaining a national office and counting among her friends Anna Howard Shaw, Julia Ward Howe, and Susan B. Anthony.9 Under her influence, the national convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association was held in Baltimore in 1906. Susan B. Anthony, a longtime friend, stayed at Garrett’s Mount Vernon Place home during the convention. This was Anthony’s last public appearance before her death. Garrett’s gifts to the suffrage movement ranged from $10,000-$20,000 annually throughout the last decade of her life.
Mary Elizabeth Garrett’s last years were spent at Bryn Mawr College with M. Carey Thomas. She was estranged from her family after bitter court battles and personal disagreements over the family’s vast holdings. Her years at Bryn Mawr were probably her happiest, as the college became a national gathering spot for feminist activism and intellectual thought at the turn of the twentieth century.
Garrett died at Bryn Mawr College in 1915, five years before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment giving women the right to vote. She was buried in Baltimore’s Green Mount Cemetery, just a few feet away from her father’s great friend, Johns Hopkins, whose medical school she helped to shape. Garrett bequeathed most of her funds and properties to M. Carey Thomas, including her 30-room Mount Vernon Place mansion in Baltimore. This property was eventually sold and the buildings were razed. Today, a hotel, The Peabody Court, occupies the site.