The Women's Medical School Fund

Early Coeducation Policy at Johns Hopkins University

The trustees of the Johns Hopkins University were divided on the question of coeducation. According to the 1877 guidelines adopted by the trustees, women were allowed to attend public and special lectures, but they would not be received in the usual classes or lectures.1 These guidelines were established following the application of M. Carey Thomas to Johns Hopkins. She was allowed to enroll as a candidate for degree, be directed by professors, and sit for the final examination for the degree, but not to attend classes. She withdrew after one year. So as to avoid affecting the chances of another candidate, Thomas wrote a letter to the trustees explaining her departure for the University of Leipzig, which is recorded in the Minutes.2 In 1880, another woman, Miss Atkinson, applied to the school. The trustees denied her request, and reaffirmed the policy of 1877. They also struck “for the present” from those guidelines, and set up a procedure for reconsidering the resolution. At each discussion, the trustees noted their hope and willingness to cooperate in the establishment of a women’s college.3 Florence Bascom was the first woman to receive the Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins on June 13, 1893. This decision was probably influenced by the trustees’ acceptance of an offer by the Women’s Medical Fund Committee six months earlier.4 The undergraduate school did not admit women until 1969.

The Women’s Medical Fund Committee’s Offer to the School of Medicine

In March 1887, Mary Elizabeth Garrett offered to donate $35,000 a year to the Johns Hopkins University to establish a coeducational school of science near her Montebello estate in northeast Baltimore. The trustees declined the offer.5 Her second attempt was to be more successful.

A large portion of the Johns Hopkins University’s endowment was invested in Baltimore & Ohio Railroad stock, which was paying 10% dividends at the time of Johns Hopkins’ death. However, the B & O, under the direction of the Garrett family, first decreased and then stopped paying dividends altogether from 1888-1891.6

In 1889, Johns Hopkins University President Daniel Coit Gilman put forth a national—and desperate—plea for a philanthropic partner to help the University establish a medical school. In a letter to George W. Brown and C. J. M. Gwinn of the Executive Committee of the Board of trustees, Gilman reveals his own perception of the situation.

(…) by a remarkable concurrence of events there is now an opportunity to establish in Baltimore a school of medicine such as the world does not now possess; but it will take a considerable sum of money. (…). Only a man of large means and of large views will be likely to appreciate the situation; but if such a man can be found willing to consider a plan in detail, it will be easy to show him that a like opportunity to be of service to mankind has never been presented.7

Garrett and her friends quickly learned of the financial difficulties that the University was experiencing. While this was public knowledge, the girls probably had a more thorough understanding of the problems because of their familial relations. As a Garrett, Mary Elizabeth would have been in a unique position to understand the hardship resulting from the mismanagement of the Railroad. As daughters of trustees, the girls of the “Friday Evening” may have had direct access to the Board’s information and its reaction to the required delay in opening the Medical School.

The women took this delay as their opportunity. They established a committee which offered to raise $100,000 for the endowment of the medical school if the trustees agreed to admit women on the same terms as men.8 The Women’s Medical School Fund Committee was officially formed in May 1890 and quickly embarked upon a massive fundraising and public relations campaign.

The women’s choice to offer $100,000 was probably not arbitrary. Rather it was likely the result of negotiations with Board members that preceded the official offer. Both Mamie Gwinn’s and M. Carey Thomas’ fathers served as conduits of communication between the girls and the other Board members. For example, in a letter (written on paper from Garrett’s address) Mamie Gwinn wrote,

Dearest Papa
We have just heard through Minnie
[M. C. Thomas] that the informal resolutions yesterday mentioned $200,000 as the sum for wh. the Univ. wd. probably agree to admit
women. We think there must be some mistake: at least we know we cannot get $200,000 & feel sure we can get $100,000 – Harvard has said & still keeps the
offer open that it will admit women for $200,000; so that if such a sum could (?) be raised many of the subscribers wd. wish to transfer to Harvard. . . . Would you
not personally be willing for the sum of $100,000, as you told me the other day to promise to admit women, whenever it does seem wise to the University to open
the school.9

C. J. M. Gwinn helped the committee in other ways as well; there are drafts of the letters from both Mrs. Davis and Mary Elizabeth Garrett in his handwriting.

This offer was made while Gilman was in Europe, which was probably a strategic move on their part. According to Thomas, Gilman appeared to support the Women’s Fund in public, but tried to undermine their efforts privately.10 Any tension between Thomas and Gilman, however, must have been resolved over time, as the two corresponded frequently about matters at Hopkins and Bryn Mawr. Moreover, a letter from Thomas to Garrett suggests that the disagreement with Gilman may not have stemmed from personal antagonism (as is sometimes reported), but from Gilman’s desire for the university to remain autonomous and his conviction that his students would not benefit from coeducation. Thomas told Garrett,

Remember that what we want is the same opportunities for medical study that are given to men for women who meet the same requirements. You know we agreed not to complicate the question by asking for anything else, neither the prep. med. course nor other graduate work. I told Mr. Gilman so most distinctly, and any change of front will ruin our chances.11

This letter indicates that Gilman was less cooperative than some of the trustees, and less concerned about coeducation than about the Fund Committee imposing other conditions that might impede, as he later pointed out in discussions of the Mary Elizabeth Garrett fund, the ability of the faculty and trustees to decide the requirements for admission, study, and graduation. Despite whatever reservation he may have had, Gilman and the trustees did accept the gift, which left to the women the task of actually raising the money.


1Minutes of Meetings of the Board of Trustees, Johns Hopkins University. Record Group 01.001, Board of Trustees, series 2, 5 November 1877. The Ferdinand Hamburger Archives of The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.

2M. Carey Thomas. Letter to The Board of Trustees of the Johns Hopkins University. 7 October 1878. Minutes of Meetings of the Board of Trustees, Johns Hopkins University. Record Group 01.001, Board of Trustees, series 2, 7 October 1878. The Ferdinand Hamburger Archives of The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. The JHU, Baltimore.

3Minutes of Meetings of the Board of Trustees, Johns Hopkins University. Record Group 01.001, Board of Trustees, series 2, 8 March 1880. The Ferdinand Hamburger Archives of The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.

4Julia B. Morgan. Women at the Johns Hopkins University: A History. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University, 1986, 6.

5George W. Dobbin. Letter to Mary E. Garrett. 31 March 1887. Founding Documents. The Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives, Baltimore.

6Alan M. Chesney. The Johns Hopkins Hospital and The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine: A Chronicle. Vol. 1: Early Years. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1943, 95.

7Daniel C. Gilman. Letter (draft) to George W. Brown and C. J. M. Gwinn of the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees. 09 November 1888. Founding Documents. The Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives, Baltimore.

8Nancy Morris Davis. Letter. ca. October 1890. Founding Documents. The Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives of The Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, Baltimore.
Mamie Gwinn. Letter to C.J.M. Gwinn. Undated. Mary Elizabeth Garrett Papers.

9Bryn Mawr College Archives, Bryn Mawr.

10Simon Felxner and James Flexner. William Henry Welch and the Heroic Age of Medicine. New York: Viking, 1941, 217.

11M. Carey Thomas. Letter to Mary Elizabeth Garrett. June 29, 1889, cited in Mary Patterson McPherson, “On the Same Terms Precisely”: The Women’s Medical Fund and the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.” Journal of the American Medical Women’s Association 36: 2, Feb 1981.