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In the late 1800s in Baltimore, a proper education for girls and young women included only the subject matter that a young lady should know – "a dash of literature, history, and art" – and have an "appreciation of the classics." Teaching was done mostly in private homes, and a college education was not something that many young women would have thought was a possibility.

Five Young Women

In 1884, five young women who were not content with the educations they had received vowed to work together to plan for better schools and a more serious education for girls that would be equal to or greater than what boys received at the time. Martha Carey Thomas emerged as the natural leader of "The Committee," as the group called themselves. Thomas came from a prominent family: her father was a well-known physician and philanthropist who served on the board of directors of both The Johns Hopkins University and Haverford College, while her mother was a leader in the Quaker religious movement and a well-known preacher at Quaker Meetings. Thomas herself had attended Quaker schools in Baltimore and subsequently graduated from Cornell in 1877. After graduating, she returned to Baltimore hoping to pursue a graduate degree at Hopkins. Because of her gender, however, she was only reluctantly admitted to "private study," and was barred from attending seminars and lectures. She resigned the following year in frustration and ultimately traveled to Zurich to pursue her doctorate. Her traveling partner was Martha Mackall "Mamie" Gwinn, a childhood friend who would later become a member of "The Committee." Thomas was successful in completing her doctoral studies and graduated summa cum laude in 1882.

Upon her return to Baltimore, she had the ambition of becoming affiliated in some way with the Bryn Mawr College, which was taking shape in the suburbs of Philadelphia. With the help of several members of her family who were serving on the new college's board, Thomas was chosen as the first dean of the college, and she eventually became the college's second president. Her tasks in Philadelphia made her even more mindful of the needs in Baltimore. A new college with very high standards would seek well-educated young women to fill its classrooms, and Baltimore needed to provide better educational opportunities for girls. She wondered, why couldn't these two ideas work together? So, Thomas and four like-minded women friends in Baltimore – Gwinn, Mary Elizabeth Garrett, Julia Rogers and Elizabeth King – all of whom were in their 20s, got to work, rented a schoolhouse, collected a faculty, and prepared to go into business.

The Founding of The Bryn Mawr School

Martha Carey Thomas, together with Mary Elizabeth Garrett, Mamie Gwinn, Elizabeth King, and Julia Rogers, founded The Bryn Mawr School in 1885 in order to provide girls and young women with the same educational benefits that boys enjoyed. The curriculum was daring and liberal for its time, including both modern and classical languages, English, history, math, the latest scientific theories, and a focus on physical education - all of which stretched the limits of imagination and acceptance. Today, over 130 years later, The Bryn Mawr School continues to provide one of the best educational curricula in the country supported by highly qualified faculty and exceptional teaching, innovative college-preparatory courses, robust offerings in athletics and the arts, and a diverse community that welcomes and provides opportunities for every girl. The Bryn Mawr School was one of the first college-preparatory schools for girls in the country, and were it not for the vision and enormous energy of the school's five founding women, such an accomplishment may not have happened in Baltimore for some time.
    • Front Row: M. Carey Thomas and Mary Elizabeth Garrett; Center: Mamie Gwinn; Back: Julia Rogers and Elizabeth (Bessie) King <br><br>Photo courtesy of the Bryn Mawr College Archives

      Front Row: M. Carey Thomas and Mary Elizabeth Garrett; Center: Mamie Gwinn; Back: Julia Rogers and Elizabeth (Bessie) King

      Photo courtesy of the Bryn Mawr College Archives

Bryn Mawr Today

  • 26 tree-lined acres that are used in combination with school classrooms for study
  • One of the finest pre-college online libraries in the state
  • The Lower School Science Center, described by one student as "science heaven," which incorporates a greenhouse, animal habitats, an aquarium and a "DNA molecule" playground
  • Award-winning dance studio
  • Theater and art gallery space for students’ work
  • One-to-one technology program in kindergarten through grade 12
  • Buildings employing "green construction"
  • Many outdoor learning areas and a new learning deck in the "North Woods" section of the campus that support environmental studies

An Evolving Institution

In 2016, students raised questions and concerns about the ways in which the societal views of some of our founders – on the topics of race, religion and what kinds of girls were worth educating – conflicted with what Bryn Mawr stands for today. These questions led to an opportunity: the creation of an ongoing history project between students and faculty to research and expand the story of Bryn Mawr. Alumnae faculty Dr. Irina Spector Marks ’04 and Dr. Kimberly Long Riley ’79 are leading the project to better understand Bryn Mawr’s past and how it has evolved into the diverse institution it is today. Explore their timeline below and read more about the project here.

A School of "Firsts"

The legendary Edith Hamilton, classicist and author of "The Greek Way" and "Mythology," was only 29 years old when she became the first headmistress of The Bryn Mawr School. A recent graduate of Bryn Mawr College, Miss Hamilton led The Bryn Mawr School for 26 years and she infused the academic program with the humanistic and classical ideals for which she was known and well-regarded.

In 1926, physical education teacher Rosabelle Sinclair introduced the game of girls lacrosse to the United States at The Bryn Mawr School. In 1992, Rosabelle Sinclair became the first woman to be inducted into the Lacrosse Hall of Fame. 

The Bryn Mawr School was one of the early independent schools in Baltimore to commit to creating diversity within its student body. The school's fourth headmistress, Katharine Van Bibber, was instrumental in moving the school toward integration in 1963 and since that time, Bryn Mawr's commitment to diversity in its student body, faculty and staff, and full educational program has been unwavering.

Bryn Mawr’s first campus featured an indoor swimming pool, a well-equipped gym with an indoor running track, rowing machines, as well as ropes and swings. Kate Campbell Hurd, the school’s physician hired in 1890, was the first resident physician in an independent school in the United States. Dr. Hurd was able to overcome many of the common misperceptions of the day by stressing the important health benefits of exercise combined with the rigors of learning.

In 1977, the school pioneered the concept of on-site quality day care for children by opening the Bryn Mawr Little School. Today, the Little School provides early childhood education for infants to five-year-olds. It is open year-round and staffed by a full faculty who are specialists in the field of educating very young children.