Skip to main content

Garrett, Mary Elizabeth (1854 – 1915)

Mary Elizabeth Garrett: Philanthropist and Suffragist

Early Life and Young Adulthood

Mary Elizabeth Garrett, As a Young Woman
Mary Elizabeth Garrett, A Young Woman
Photo: The Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives of The Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions

Mary Elizabeth Garrett Mary Elizabeth Garrett was born on 5 March 1854 in Baltimore to Rachel Anne Harrison Garrett and John Work Garrett. She was their only daughter after three sons: Henry, Robert, and Thomas Harrison. A giant in shipping and transport, John Work Garrett was the president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.  She was born into a family that was both wealthy and committed to philanthropy. 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.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.

John W. Garrett head and shoulders portrait photograph
John W. Garrett
Photo: Library of Congress
Digital ID ggbain 05628

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

"Friday Evening" Group of five women friends
“Friday Evening” Group
Photo: The Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives of The Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions

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.

Editor’s Note: A Biographical Sketch of the Friday Evening Group can be found at:

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.

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.

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. In 1887 Garrett offers to fund a co-educational school of science near her Montebello estate. The University rejects this proposal.

Two years later Garrett, along with the other members of the “Friday evening” group, organizes the Women’s Medical Fund Committee to raise money for the school of medicine planned by Johns Hopkins.

In 1890 the “Friday evening” group launches a national campaign to raise an endowment for the medical school planned for Johns Hopkins. Their ambition is to force the university, through public opinion and financial leverage, to admit women and men on an equal basis at the proposed school. The women raise $111,300 which includes a gift of $47,787.50 by Mary Elizabeth. In 1891 Garrett offers an additional $100,000 to the Johns Hopkins University Board of Trustees, on the condition that the balance needed to meet the requisite $500,000 endowment be in hand by February 1892.

On Dec. 22, 1892, Garrett offers to give the remaining balance of $306,977 needed to adequately endow the medical school, provided that the university maintains her strict entrance requirements. In February 1893, the Johns Hopkins University Board of Trustees finally accepts Garrett’s gift with its accompanying conditions. Among these conditions are provisions that men and women be admitted to the school and enjoy all its advantages on the same terms, that the medical school be a graduate school, and that admitted applicants have a bachelor’s degree and provide proof of satisfactory knowledge in physics, chemistry, biology, French, and German. The school opens in October of that same year, 1893. When they finished, the Johns Hopkins University—and medical education in the United States—would never be the same.

Enriching Bryn Mawr College

Mary Elizabeth Garrett, portrait painted by John Singer Sargent
Portrait by John Singer Sargent
Photo: Public Domain

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.

Later Years

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, there are no brick and mortar remains of Mary Elizabeth Garrett’s magnanimous life. Her beautiful homes and estates are gone, as are the 1890 Bryn Mawr School building, the Women’s Medical School Fund Building, and the Deanery at Bryn Mawr College.

Yet Mary Elizabeth Garrett’s legacy is all around us. Today, almost 50 percent of medical students are women. They are admitted to and educated on an equal basis as men at medical schools across the country. Young women attend college preparatory schools that maintain high scholastic requirements following the innovative example set by the Bryn Mawr School. Bryn Mawr College continues to educate women leaders for the future.

Perhaps Mary Elizabeth Garrett’s most generous gift was in giving to other women that which she had been denied. She might have kept her great wealth for herself. Yet she chose to share her good fortune and her vision for women’s place in society to create new opportunities for women. Today, the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine moves forward as an affirmation of her philanthropy and of her work to ensure that women have the same educational opportunities as men, and that the school set and maintain standards of excellence.

1 Mary Elizabeth Garrett. Autobiography, manuscript. Mary Elizabeth Garrett Papers. Bryn Mawr College Archives, Bryn Mawr.

2Kathleen Waters Sander. A Celebration of Mary Elizabeth Garrett: A Life on Her Own Terms.

3Mary Hodder (Mamie Gwinn), letter to Logan Pearshall Smith, Esq., early 1938. Mary Elizabeth Garrett Papers. Bryn Mawr College Archives, [note: she does not use the term “Friday Evening”]

4While the school had no formal affiliation with the Bryn Mawr College, it did have a direct link through one of the “Friday Evening” members, M. Carey Thomas, who was dean of the college.

5Kathleen Waters Sander. A Celebration of Mary Elizabeth Garrett: A Life on Her Own Terms.



Mary Elizabeth Garrett, letter to Bryn Mawr Trustees, [March 28?], 1893. Mary Elizabeth Garrett Papers. Bryn Mawr College Archives.

Ethel Puffer Homes [sp?], letter to Miss Mary E. Garrett, National College Equal Suffrage League. Mary Elizabeth Garrett Papers. Bryn Mawr College Archives.

Republished from: The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine: (Accessed: October 16, 2015)

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): The John Hopkins School of Medicine (n.d.). Mary Elizabeth Garrett: Philanthropist and suffragist. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from


One Reply to “Garrett, Mary Elizabeth (1854 – 1915)”

Comments for this site have been disabled. Please use our contact form for any research questions.