Photograph courtesy of the
Katharine Dexter McCormick (1875-1967), a pioneer of the women's suffrage and birth control movements, was also one of MIT's most important and dedicated benefactors. The daughter of liberal parents--her father was a prominent Chicago lawyer who had been active in the anti-slavery movement; her mother, an advocate for women's rights--Katharine was imbued with concerns for social justice and encouraged from an early age to excel at her schoolwork. Her father's fatal heart attack when she was 14 and her brother's death from spinal meningitis when she was 19 inspired her to study biology at MIT. Because she needed several years as a part-time special student to ready herself for the Institute's entrance exams, she did not enroll until 1900 and received her degree in biology in 1904. Reproduced here is a theme written for an English composition class in 1899 describing her preparation for entrance to the Institute. Also reproduced are several sample pages from her student notebook for a comparative anatomy class in 1896.
While an undergraduate, Katharine crossed swords with the MIT administration by refusing to wear a hat (as required by MIT policy for the few women then in attendance). She successfully argued that the feathers posed a fire hazard when worn in laboratories. After graduation, she married Stanley McCormick, heir to the International Harvester Company fortune. Her husband succumbed to schizophrenia only two years after marriage and spent the rest of his life in special care. When Stanley died in 1947, Katharine received full control of his estate and resolved to use her resources to do something about birth control and women's educational issues.
Katharine McCormick had attended a lecture given by birth control advocate Margaret Sanger in 1917, and the two became friends. Sanger envisioned a pill that women could take that would allow them to determine when pregnancies could occur and whether or not to have children. In 1950 Sanger introduced McCormick to Gregory Pincus and Min-chueh Chang at the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology, whose work focused on developing a contraceptive pill. McCormick funded the research, which yielded successful results that were announced in 1956 and licensed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1960. She then turned her attention to a problem that had been troubling her for over 55 years: the lack of adequate housing for women students at MIT. "I believe, if we can get them properly housed," she noted, "that the best scientific education in our country will be open to them permanently. Then I can rest in peace." The result was McCormick Hall, opened as a women's residence in 1963.
The papers of Katharine Dexter McCormick (MC 148), including correspondence, notebooks, exams, and other materials, are available for research in the Institute Archives and Special Collections, Room 14N-118.
Object of the Month: March 2004; September 2008; September 2010
MIT Institute Archives