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Martha Carey Thomas


photo of Martha Thomas

Martha Carey Thomas pioneer, educator and feminist, was born into a family of prominent Baltimore Quakers, the oldest of ten children. She attended a local dame's school in the mid 1860's. When the schooling thought appropriate for young ladies came to an end, Thomas became jealous of the opportunities afforded her brothers. So, in 1872, Thomas persuaded her father to allow her to attend a newly opened school for girls in New York. While studying there her father asked her to investigate Cornell University for him. He later decided that it had been a mistake, because as soon as she saw it, she was determined to attend. Though her father publicly approved of education for women, he did not approve of his daughter going to a real college, and, in particular, to a co-educational one. He did relent, however, and Thomas received her bachelor's degree from Cornell in 1877.

In the fall of 1877, she applied to John Hopkins University. She was reluctantly admitted for a master's degree, the first woman to enter a Hopkins graduate course. Prohibited from attending lectures, Thomas' enthusiasm waned and after completing one year, she withdrew. Forty years later, she was the first woman to receive an honorary degree from John Hopkins.

While studying in Europe, Thomas heard of a proposed women's college at Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and applied for presidency. A man was chosen instead and Thomas was appointed Dean of the College and first Professor of English. Though she was very busy with her work at Bryn Mawr, she often returned to Baltimore to work on other projects dear to her. One such project was the need for a school where girls could obtain an education which would prepare them to attend a good college. This project resulted in the opening of the Bryn Mawr School for Girls in Baltimore in 1885.

Thomas is perhaps best known for having facilitated the admission of women to the John Hopkins Medical School. With the help of four of her friends, a total of $500,000 was raised to aid the Medical School in its financial struggle. The funds raised were used as a leverage to get the University to accept women. Thus, thanks largely to the efforts of these five women, women were to be admitted on precisely the same basis as men. There were three women among the first class to enter the John Hopkins Medical School in 1893.

Thomas became president of Bryn Mawr College in 1894, serving until 1922.

Biography courtesy of the Maryland Commission for Women, 1988.

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