Wednesday, November 18, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Mary Elizabeth Garrett: Society and Philanthropy in the Gilded Age by Kathleen Waters Sander

Mary Elizabeth Garrett: Society and Philanthropy in the Gilded Age by Kathleen Waters Sander is a conventional-type biography (first published in 2008 and re-released this spring) of an unconventional Baltimore woman in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century.


Mary was the daughter of B&O railroad tycoon, John Work Garrett. A typically ruthless “robber baron,” Garrett amassed a fortune and became one of the leading citizens of the city. During the Civil War, when Baltimore tottered on the edge of the North/South divide, Garrett threw in with Lincoln despite the Southern sympathies of many in his family, largely because he believed it was in his economic interest (and Baltimore’s) to do so.

John Garrett was no philanthropist, but he was a good friend of both George Peabody and Johns Hopkins, exceedingly wealthy Baltimoreans who left huge bequests to found institutions in the city after their deaths. Mary Garrett, who served as her father’s secretary, was witness to this large scale philanthropy and absorbed its lessons.

Despite, or perhaps because of, her father’s increasing dependence upon her business acumen, Mary was not allowed to pursue her own interests or to marry. Although her brothers were given significant roles in the family companies and became millionaires, Mary was given only a “small” allowance and her expenditures had to be approved. This was painfully frustrating for a woman who possessed a better head for finance than either of her brothers.

However, many of the restrictions placed upon her disappeared after her father’s death, when she received roughly a third of the family fortune.

Unfortunately for the family’s long-term relationships, the bequests were all intertwined and caught up in the value of the railroad stock. This led, down the road, to a falling out between the siblings and especially between Mary and her sisters-in-law.

Mary’s share, whether or not she had been cheated out of a significant sum by her brothers’ accounting irregularities, was substantial, making her one of the wealthiest women in the country. As she was unmarried, the money remained hers to control. Mary was determined to use it to help women.

To that end, with the help of four close female friends, she established a prep school for girls in Baltimore. Then she turned her attentions to the newly-established Johns Hopkins Hospital and University. Part of the bequest of her father’s friend Hopkins was supposed to establish a medical school in conjunction with the university. However, the Johns Hopkins endowment was also tied up in B&O stock. When the railroad’s fortunes declined, the money for the university began to run out. The medical school was hopelessly behind schedule and seemed doomed to fail.

Mary Garrett is best remembered for her program of “coercive philanthropy.” She spearheaded fund-raising for the medical school, eventually contributing nearly the entire sum herself, but set conditions on the gift. The main condition was that women must be admitted on the same basis as men. There were medical colleges for women at the time, but they were recognized to have inferior resources to those of medical schools for men. Coeducation for physicians was a practically heretical ideal, but Mary was determined to push for it.

The biography does a wonderful job of demonstrating just what an uphill battle it was to found the Johns Hopkins Medical School on a co-educational principle. 

The book also shows aspects of Mary’s personal life: her circle of friends, her falling out with her family, her health issues. She was an intensely private person, so these parts of her life are less well fleshed out than her more public philanthropies.

Mary Garrett was, in any case, a fascinating woman, and this well-researched biography is highly recommended.