The Other Feminist
By Janet Farrar Worthington
Mary Garrett may have won most of the historical credit, but gutsy M. Carey Thomas was the driving force to ensure that women would attend Hopkins Medical School.
The historical mellowing would surely come as a severe shock to those who knew her: “She was a very strong-willed woman,” comments Dean Emeritus and Hopkins historian Thomas B. Turner, M.D. “Mary Garrett has gotten the most credit, but I really believe it was M. Carey Thomas who had the strong thoughts, and Garrett probably went along with her. Thomas had the super intelligence, and Garrett had the super money.”
First Salvo: A Huge Bribe
Maybe her hands trembled that day in 1888; maybe she had to summon all of her courage as she hit Daniel Coit Gilman, the first president of Johns Hopkins University, with an audacious proposal that surely knocked him for a loop. But quite possibly Thomas—already, at 31, dean of Bryn Mawr College, tenacious as a bulldog and a veteran campaigner, for whom most worthwhile things came only after a struggle—was rock-steady as she coolly offered Gilman an eye-popping bribe: a pledge of $100,000, funds sorely needed to endow the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, if women were admitted from the beginning.
She had Gilman over a barrel and she knew it. Without this cash, the prospects of fulfilling the long-awaited dream of Quaker philanthropist Johns Hopkins were dreary. In 1873, several months before his death, Hopkins had willed the bulk of his estate, $7 million, to endow a top-notch university, medical school and hospital. Hopkins had planned to fund the medical school with 15,000 shares of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad; but the B&O fell on hard times—and so did University trustees’ hopes of establishing a world-class school of medicine. The clock was ticking, and the founding faculty, with no building—and no students—were grumbling.
But to be forced to admit women into the classroom! Gilman, for one, stood tall in the name of chivalry; in his inaugural address, he spoke of protecting women from “the rougher influences” of young men in the classroom. Plus, it was widely believed that women should be shielded from unsuitable subject matter, such as human anatomy.
Thomas detested this kind of thinking; she herself had been a victim of it. A graduate of Cornell University, Thomas had hoped to earn an advanced degree in
Greek at the Johns Hopkins University—a situation that created a quandary for the board, which attempted a clumsy compromise: She could take examinations, and she could be guided by the University’s professors, but she couldn’t sit in the same class with men. Thomas eventually earned her Ph.D. degree at the University of Zurich, graduating summa cum laude in 1882.
Genteel RevolutionariesBack in Baltimore, Thomas and a core group of friends became genteel revolutionaries—well-connected hometown girls, passionately committed to the goal of equal opportunities in education for women. In 1885, these determined women—Thomas, Garrett, Mamie Gwinn, Bessie King and Julia Rogers—had founded the Baltimore Bryn Mawr School for Girls. Most were daughters of University trustees: physician James Carey Thomas, B&O railroad tycoon Robert Garrett, trustee chairman Francis T. King, and Charles J.M. Gwinn, executor of Hopkins’ will.
What happened next is a cornerstone of Hopkins history. Briefly, the women achieved their great goal through hard work, persistence and relentless politicking. To generate the $100,000, they formed the Women’s Medical School Fund and rallied influential women—supporters included writer Sarah Orne Jewett and First Lady Caroline Scott (Mrs. William Henry) Harrison—across the country. Mary Garrett’s largesse—nearly half of the money came from her—helped considerably. So did Thomas’ canny ability to capitalize on their trustee connections: Her father, James Thomas, gave Carey, as she put it, “the inside track” on their deliberations.
“These were not cool business arrangements between rational intelligences,” writes acclaimed Thomas biographer Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz in The Power and Passion of M. Carey Thomas. The ordeal… “was rather like a performance of Italian opera at its most fevered.” In a letter to a friend, Thomas bluntly stated that the trustees waged war “in the dark with treachery and false reasons. Trustees, doctors, professors (Mr. Gwinn and Father leading our forces) became involved in a tangle of hatred, malice, detraction that beggars description.”
On Oct. 28, 1890, they formally presented the money—with its big string attached. The trustees accepted, but threw down another gauntlet: The medical school could not open until it had $500,000. In the end it was Garrett who again saved the day—donating more than $300,000 to meet the goal. But with this huge chunk of cash came more demands: Particularly, the ladies wanted higher admissions standards and four years of M.D. course work, perhaps in an effort to silence doubters on the abilities of women to handle medical school.
If Thomas could take a look at the status of women at the School of Medicine today, 63 years after her death, she’d feel vindicated. A report from the Women’s Leadership Council showed that 49 percent of the class that graduated in May consisted of women (from an applicant pool that also included 49 percent women). In addition, the percentage of women in Ph.D., house staff and fellowship ranks averaged around 36 percent.
That journey toward equal opportunity began with the passionate and brilliant M. Carey Thomas and the loyal and wealthy Mary Garrett. As Turner concludes, “There seems to be little doubt that what they accomplished together, their imprint on a century of medical education, could not have been accomplished by either alone.”