Bryn Mawr College Library Special Collections


M. Carey Thomas PapersM. Carey Thomas, Bryn Mawr College Library Special Collections
Guide and Microfilm Edition

Part I: Description

Special Collections Department, Bryn Mawr College Library

Copyright © 2003 by Special Collections Department, Bryn Mawr College Library

October 2003
Last Updated: January 23, 2018




Total Boxes: 270
Linear Feet: 135

Administrative Information


Archives of Bryn Mawr College; estate of M. Carey Thomas; gift of Bryn Mawr School; gift of Carrie Chapman Catt, respectively.

Ownership & Literary Rights

The M. Carey Thomas Papers is the physical property of the Special Collections Department, Bryn Mawr College Library. Literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns.

Cite as:

M. Carey Thomas Papers, Special Collections Department, Bryn Mawr College Library.

Restrictions on Access

This collection is open for research.




M. 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



M. Carey Thomas Papers

The microfilm publication of the M. Carey Thomas Collection at Bryn Mawr College is comprised of documents from two principal sources: Carey Thomas’s personal papers, which were in her possession at the time of her death and became a part of her estate, and the official records surviving from her career at Bryn Mawr College, which have been preserved in the college archives. The integrity of these separate collections (except for photographs) has been retained. However, scattered items appear in the personal papers which would seem properly to belong in the official papers, and vice versa. This is probably a result of the physical proximity in which the collections were generated. Thomas maintained an office in her residence from which she often conducted college business and she undoubtedly handled private business from the President’s office in Taylor Hall as well. Because of existing finding aids based on the original arrangement and also previous scholarly use of the college archives, apparent strays were not refiled.

These two major series of papers are augmented by two much smaller lots. The third series, the Bryn Mawr School Papers, were discovered in the Thomas family summer home at Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania, by Dr. Caroline Bedell Thomas prior to the sale of the property. Dr. Thomas, acting with the concurrence of the Bryn Mawr School, placed the records in the Bryn Mawr College Archives. The fourth series is comprised of six photograph albums compiled by Carrie Chapman Catt depicting the history of the women’s suffrage movement, which were given to Bryn Mawr College because of Thomas’s contribution to the movement.

M. Carey Thomas’s personal papers, consisting of incoming and outgoing correspondence, family letters, autobiographical papers, business records, memorabilia and other miscellaneous materials, were given to Bryn Mawr College by Millicent Carey McIntosh, Carey Thomas’s niece and one of her executors. The survival rate of Thomas’s personal papers is uneven. Thomas herself appears to have regarded personal papers as valuable for sentimental rather than historical purposes. In surveying her personal archives, for example, one finds no evidence that she seriously attempted to document her role in the suffrage movement. On the other hand there is nothing to indicate that she ever destroyed any records or contemplated their destruction for reasons other than to rid herself and her executors of routine and outdated papers. Making plans for the disposition of her papers after moving out of the Deanery in 1934, she wrote to Isabel Maddison: "I doubt very much whether there is anything that I want except Miss Garrett’s and my letters."

Apparently no systematic effort was made by Bryn Mawr College to collect and organize the official records of M. Carey Thomas’s administration as president of the college until 1950. At that time Mary Louise Terrien, a former Bryn Mawr College reference librarian, (1915-1945), was engaged by President Katherine McBride to sort and organize the unbound documents surviving from Thomas’s tenure. Terrien left no comprehensive report of the amount of papers she encountered or of the condition in which she found them. From her extant informal memoranda, it is clear that she worked in close coordination with the president’s office on this project. Terrien merged outgoing, incoming, and third party correspondence with miscellaneous materials to create a series of subject files which she entitled "The History of the College." The name was apropos, except for letterpress copybooks of outgoing correspondence, all extant official papers directly relating to James E. Rhoads’s and M. Carey Thomas’s presidencies have been preserved in this file. (Note: Apparently Terrien concluded that there were not sufficient surviving papers from Rhoads’s administration to warrant separate treatment. His correspondence with other parties, as well as with Carey Thomas--a slight lot all together--was incorporated into The History of the College files.) The college archives also includes Trustees’ minutes, annual reports of the presidents to the Board of Trustees, faculty and administrative committee minutes, college bulletins and other publications which are not organized as presidential papers and are not included in the microfilm.

Miss Terrien’s files are augmented in the college archives and on this microfilm publication by Thomas’s existing letterpress copybooks, numbered 13-70, and by a small body of faculty files from her administration. It is not clear when the bulk of the presidential papers of James E. Rhoads, Thomas’s as dean of the college, and the first twelve letterbooks were lost.

Because of limitations of time and budget, no effort was made to collect copies of Thomas Papers from other repositories for this microfilm publication. However, in order to test the extent of Thomas materials elsewhere, inquiry was made by letter or in person of institutions likely to own related collections. Libraries active in collecting women’s history were approached as well as nearby colleges with close ties to Bryn Mawr, other northeastern women’s colleges, and universities from which Thomas most frequently recruited faculty (Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Chicago, Oxford, and Cambridge, etc.). The following reported Thomas holdings in varying amounts; Princeton University, Yale University, Radcliffe College, Vassar College, Mount Holyoke College, Harvard University, Wellesley College, The Johns Hopkins University, Smith College, Haverford College, Swarthmore College, and the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle.

The only important group of papers discovered in private hands is the family archive of James Thomas Flexner, Miss Thomas’s nephew. The American Philosophical Society holds a related collection, the Simon Flexner Papers. Both contain M. Carey Thomas correspondence, family letters, and miscellaneous material pertinent to her life.

Finally, following the completion of the editorial preparation of the Thomas Collection for microfilm, a project was undertaken to locate and bring into the Bryn Mawr College Archives all non-current records stored elsewhere on campus. A small amount of additional Thomas items has surfaced in this process, notably scattered correspondence in the letter files of her assistants and secretaries and intra-campus memoranda in the early files of the college library. Because these strays do not form discrete lots and are generally of low quality, the photography of the Thomas Collection was not interrupted to allow them to be integrated. They will of course be available to researchers in the Bryn Mawr College Archives.

NB: Individual Correspondents. The print version of this guide includes an index to individual correspondents which it has not been possible to reproduce in this online guide. Please direct requests for assistance to the archivist or to


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