About Martha Carey Thomas
Martha Carey Thomas was born January 2, 1857, in Baltimore, Maryland, the eldest child of James Carey Thomas and Mary Whitall Thomas. Her father and paternal grandfather were physicians. Her mother was the youngest daughter of a prosperous Philadelphia merchant, John Mickle Whitall, and his wife Mary Tatum Whitall. Throughout her childhood and youth, Minnie (as she was nicknamed) Thomas’s nuclear family maintained very close ties with the extended families on both sides.
The Thomases and Whitalls were active members of the Society of Friends, and their religion almost certainly reinforced their family bonds. This may be observed in the correspondence of Mary Whitall Thomas with her sister Sarah Whitall Nicholson (whose daughter Rebecca, or Bessie, was Minnie’s close childhood friend).
Religion was even more central in the life of Mary’s other sister, Hannah Whitall Smith, who, along with her husband Robert Pearsall Smith, became an evangelist of international stature. Hannah’s fervent individualism and feminism were important influences on Carey Thomas’s life. Among all of Carey’s cousins, Hannah’s four children - Frank, Mary (later married to Bernard Berenson), Alys (the first wife of Bertrand Russell), and Logan - were the ones with whom she had the warmest and most enduring relations.
James and Mary Thomas, though both Quaker ministers, and zealous in the religious instruction of their children, appear in every way to have been indulgent and loving parents to their large family. After Minnie’s birth, five sons and four daughters followed: John Mickle Whitall, b. 1859; Henry M., b. 1861; Bond Valentine, b. 1863; James Whitall, b. 1865 (died in infancy); Mary Grace, b. 1866; Margaret Cheston, b. 1869; Helen Whitall, b. 1871; Frank S., b. 1873; and Dora C., b. 1877 (died in infancy). Although she increasingly resented the growing number of her siblings and developed an abhorrence of large families which she never lost, Carey Thomas enjoyed many prerogatives as the eldest child.
M. Carey Thomas as an infant, Bryn Mawr College Library Special CollectionsDoted upon by her parents in her infancy, Minnie proved to be a spirited, curious, headstrong child. She appears to have enjoyed strong and vigorous health, with no major illnesses until she suffered a serious household accident at the age of seven. While she was playing in the kitchen, her clothes caught fire resulting in extensive and very severe burns on her lower body. Her recuperation was painfully slow; she did not recover sufficiently to resume her former pattern of strenuous play for well over a year. Following her convalescence, she took great pleasure in active sports including swimming, hiking, riding, and especially, ice skating.
Minnie, having learned to read at a very early age, excelled in the local Quaker school where she received her first formal education. In 1872, she enrolled at Howland Institute, a Quaker boarding school for girls near Ithaca, New York. Already desirous of higher education, her ambitions were directed by Jane Slocum, a Howland teacher, toward Cornell University and advanced scholarship. Thomas graduated from Howland in 1874, spent a year at home preparing herself for Cornell entrance examinations, and entered the University as a junior in the fall of 1875. In 1877 she received her A.B. degree, qualifying for election to Phi Beta Kappa. Returning to her parents’ home, she sought admission to the graduate school of the newly established Johns Hopkins University. Johns Hopkins enrolled her in a degree program but refused to permit her to attend classes and seminars with its male students. For a while Thomas attempted to follow a program of directed private scholarship, but this proved unsatisfactory and in October 1878 she resigned.
M. Carey Thomas, college age, Bryn Mawr College Library Special CollectionsUntil the time she left Cornell University, Carey Thomas’s correspondence indicates that she continued to attend church services regularly and practised private devotions in accordance with her parents’ wishes. However, the conversion experience she claimed to have hoped for never came. After her return home, her religious doubts were replaced by a conviction that her parents’ faith was without relevance to her life and that many, if not all, of their beliefs were unfounded and erroneous. However, after discussing the matter with her mother, she agreed to keep these attitudes private. Later as president of Bryn Mawr College she attended Quaker meetings during the academic year and did not resign her membership in the Society of Friends until after her retirement.
Thomas’s distaste for her first name, by which she was never called, may have been related to her dislike of the excessive religious zeal of her paternal grandmother for whom she was named. The first Martha Carey Thomas died as a young matron and was memorialized in a pamphlet which celebrated her religious devotion and her submissive spirit in the face of ill health. After Martha’s death, Dr. Richard Henry Thomas twice remarried, so that Carey Thomas had uncles and aunts who were virtually her contemporaries. Several members of the Thomas family shared, and perhaps inspired, Carey’s compelling interest in higher education and her thirst for foreign travel.
M. Carey Thomas and Baltimore friends, Bryn Mawr College Library Special CollectionsAlthough Thomas found the years immediately following her graduation from Cornell frustrating in many ways, she developed at that time a remarkable network of friendships which proved to be intellectually stimulating, emotionally supportive, and culturally and socially liberating. The closest and most congenial of her youthful friends was her cousin, Elizabeth (Bessie) Tabor King. Even though Bessie was three years older than Carey, they attended Howland Institute together and graduated in the same class. After their return to Baltimore, Bessie apparently introduced two other young women of her own age, Mary Elizabeth Garrett and Julia Rebecca Rogers, to Thomas. To this group was added a still younger woman, Mary (Mamie) Mackall Gwinn. Calling themselves the "Friday Night," the group met fortnightly, functioning as a kind of philosophical and literary debating club. Stimulated at least in part by these discussions and supported by her mother, Carey Thomas determined to seek an advanced degree at a German University. With Mamie Gwinn as travelling companion and housemate, she enrolled in a graduate program in philology at the University of Leipzig. When, as Thomas neared the completion of her studies, the German government proscribed the award of advanced degrees to women, she transferred to the University of Zurich and in the fall of 1882 received a doctoral degree summa cum laude.
The years immediately following Thomas’s return to the United States in the fall of 1883 were perhaps the most productive of her entire life. Named dean-elect of Bryn Mawr College in 1884, the year before it opened, Thomas proposed to President James E. Rhoads and the Board of Trustees a series of academic policies not then in effect in any women’s college. Apparently devised with the assistance of Mamie Gwinn and clearly modeled on Johns Hopkins University and the German university system, Thomas’s scheme included rigorous entrance examinations, a faculty staffed only by holders of PhD degrees, and the establishment of graduate departments and graduate fellowships. When the college opened in 1885, Thomas served in the double roles of dean of the college, heading a brilliant young faculty which she had been instrumental in recruiting, and professor of literature. In later years she would look back nostalgically on this period as a happy time when the college, the students, and faculty "all were young together."
In the same year that Bryn Mawr College enrolled its first classes, Thomas, in co-operation with other members of the erstwhile "Friday Night" founded a girls’ preparatory school in Baltimore. Incorporating the most advanced and rigorous academic and physical education programs, the Bryn Mawr School boasted of its high standards, requiring for graduation the successful completion of Bryn Mawr College’s entrance examinations.
Soon after the Bryn Mawr School opened, the women who founded it (with the exception of Julia Rogers) undertook a farsighted new project to expand educational and career opportunities for women. With the aid of a national system of women’s committees which they organized, the Baltimore group (relying heavily on the financial and administrative contributions of Mary Garrett) raised funds adequate to endow a Medical School at Johns Hopkins University. As conditions of the gift, the Women’s Committee required that women should be admitted to the medical school on the same terms as men and that college degrees should be required for admission.
Even while the agreement concerning the medical school were still being worked out, Carey Thomas’s career at Bryn Mawr College reached a crossroads. When President Rhoads announced his intention to resign in 1893, Thomas, who had applied for the office of president prior to the opening of the college, immediately became a candidate to succeed him. Although she had strong support on the Board of Trustees from Rhoads, her father, her uncle James Whitall, and a cousin, David Scull, Thomas’s appointment was vigorously opposed by a conservative faction. Not until November 1893 did the Trustees narrowly elect her to the presidency; she assumed office at the end of the school term the following spring.
M. Carey Thomas bust by Manship, Bryn Mawr College Library Special CollectionsM. Carey Thomas’s ensuing twenty-eight year tenure as president of Bryn Mawr College was a period of building, growth, and innovation. The faculty, the student body, and the endowment grew dramatically. Under her direction, dormitories, a library, and sundry auxiliary buildings were constructed in an architectural style first used in this country on the Bryn Mawr campus--Collegiate Gothic. Thomas introduced an experimental model school as an adjunct to the Education Department, founded a Graduate Department of Social Research and helped to create a summer school for women industrial workers on the Bryn Mawr campus. Before she became president of the college, Thomas had been instrumental in the creation of Student Self-Government, and as president she encouraged its growth and defended its prerogatives. The workload Thomas handled as president was extraordinary. In addition to undertaking several major fund raising and building construction programs, she supervised on a daily basis a myriad of details regarding student housing, health, and welfare; faculty recruitment; curriculum and course development; buildings and grounds upkeep; and budgetary and other administrative matters.
Not withstanding her many positive accomplishments, Thomas’s presidency was marked by several disruptive struggles for power arising out of conflicts of principles and personalities. The first of these was essentially a continuation of the debate over her candidacy for the presidency. The minority of Trustees who had opposed her appointment continued, in the 1890s, to resist many of her policies and programs. Basically at issue was the secularization of the college, which Thomas considered essential to its future development. Retrospectively the conflict can be viewed as a struggle between intellectual freedom and academic excellence on the one hand, and sectarian commitment on the other. Apparently the matter was resolved toward the end of the decade by a tacit compromise with Thomas accommodating certain of the Trustees’ wishes (for example, restrictions on music and drama on campus) and receiving in return a relatively free hand to pursue her long range goals in an institution where no religious observances would be imposed on the student body.
Before the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, Thomas’s relations with the Board of Trustees were again in a state of crisis. In 1906, in response to charges that the president was unmindful of the authority of the Trustees and that she was distrusted by members of the faculty, the Board undertook an investigation of her administration and of her character. Whether or not she was fully vindicated by the findings of the investigating committee, Thomas seems to have emerged from this controversy with a strengthened position vis-à-vis the Trustees.
The final and most public of the crises of President Thomas’s administration occurred in 1916 when some of the faculty protested in the pages of Philadelphia’s newspapers her autocratic use of the powers of her office. The uprising succeeded in bringing about reform of the structure of college government, giving the faculty direct authority in matters of faculty recruitment, promotions, terminations of contracts, etc.
When Carey Thomas moved to Bryn Mawr, she was allotted one of three cottages provided as faculty housing. Nicknamed the Deanery, it was to be her residence until 1933 when she removed her personal effects and deeded the remainder of its contents to the alumnae. For nearly twenty years she shared the Deanery with Mamie Gwinn, who was first a graduate student and then a professor of literature at the college. After Gwinn’s marriage in June 1904, Mary E. Garrett moved to Bryn Mawr and lived in the Deanery until her death in 1915. Major renovations and additions to the Deanery were underwritten and supervised by Garrett shortly after she moved in.
Thomas shared with Garrett a deepening interest in the women’s suffrage movement. The two women contributed generously to its treasury and Thomas took a leading part in the establishment of the College Equal Suffrage League. Other interests of Thomas’s that went beyond the boundaries of Bryn Mawr College were the Association of Collegiate Alumnae (later renamed the American Association of University Women); the Naples Table Association (which supported women scientists at the Naples Research Station); the College Entrance Examination Board; the International Federation of University Women; the Athens Hostel (for use by women scholars at the American School for Classical Research at Athens); and the peace movement.
In 1922, at the age of 65, Carey Thomas retired. As President-emeritus, she remained a member of the Board of Directors until her death and interested herself in the operations of the college in other ways. She continued to support the peace movement, the Athens Hostel, the Equal Rights Amendment, and other outside interests. Most of her time, however, was devoted to the pursuit of long time avocations: travel, reading, the theatre, music, art, and architecture. In addition, she planned to write an autobiography and throughout the remainder of her life, at home and abroad, she professed to be at work on it. Although she collected material avidly and made notes assiduously, her autobiography was never written.
Carey Thomas died on December 2, 1935, less than a month after she had taken part in the celebration of Bryn Mawr College's Fiftieth Anniversary. Although Thomas had inherited the bulk of Mary Garrett's large estate in 1915, by the time of her death, the depression and her own heavy expenditures had seriously eroded the principal and she left an estate appraised at about one hundred thousand dollars. In accordance with her wishes, her body was cremated and her ashes buried in the cloisters of the library named in her honor at the heart of the Bryn Mawr campus.
M. Carey Thomas Chronology
- 1857 M. Carey Thomas born in Baltimore on 2 January
- 1864 Severely burned at age 7
- 1872-1874 Attended Howland Institute
- 1875 Entered Cornell University
- 1877 Received B.A. from Cornell
- 1877-1878 Studied at Johns Hopkins University
- 1879-1882 Studied in Europe with Mamie Gwinn
- 1882 Received PhD from the University of Zurich
- 1883 Returned to United States
- 1884 Appointed Dean of Bryn Mawr College and Professor of English
- 1885 Bryn College opened
- 1885 Bryn Mawr School opened
- 1888 Mother, Mary Whitall Thomas, died
- 1891 Women’s Fund for the Johns Hopkins University Medical School collected
- 1893 JHUMS opened
- 1894 Appointed president of Bryn Mawr College
- 1897 Father, James Carey Thomas, died
- 1904 Mamie Gwinn married Alfred Hodder
- 1904 Mary Garrett moved into the Deanery
- 1906 Trustees’ investigation of charges against Thomas
- 1915 Mary Garrett died leaving Thomas the bulk of her estate
- 1915-1916 Faculty crisis at Bryn Mawr
- 1921 Summer School for Women Workers in Industry opened at Bryn Mawr
- 1922 Retired as president of Bryn Mawr
- 1935 Fiftieth Anniversary of Bryn Mawr College
- 1935 M. Carey Thomas died on 2 December