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Ellen Browning Scripps

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Ellen Browning Scripps – Who was the woman behind the philanthropist?

Ellen Browning Scripps
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To many San Diegans, the name Ellen Browning Scripps brings to mind the buildings and institutions named after her family, such as Scripps Memorial Hospital and Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Many people also know that she lived in La Jolla, never married, and contributed great sums of money to many different organizations, but who was the woman behind the philanthropist?

Early Years

Ellen Browning Scripps was born in London on October 18, 1836. Her mother died when she was four and a half, after which Ellen spent three years at a boarding school until the entire family emigrated to America, settling in Illinois in 1844. Ellen’s father brought his library with the best of English literature with him, and it was through that library that Ellen developed a fondness for reading.

Once her father remarried, Ellen gained five half-siblings, and the total number of living Scripps children rounded out at 10 (three died in infancy). As the second oldest girl, Ellen’s responsibilities as a child and young woman included cooking, mending, sweeping, sewing and washing, as well as keeping up with her own studies.


Ellen completed high school at age 17, and desired to continue on to college, but had no money to do so. In order to save up money, like any enterprising young person, she lived at home, and taught elementary school for two years. Having saved enough, Ellen was able to attend Knox College in 1856.

At the time, it was generally believed that women would overtax their mind and cause themselves to become ill if they did too much mental work. However, female students applying to Knox College were held to the same admission standards as the male students. The required entrance exams for Knox College were in algebra, geometry, English, Latin and Greek grammar, as well as in Caesar, Ovid and Xenophon. Passing these exams allowed women to prove that they could do exactly the same work the men were doing. As Ellen lived to be almost 96 years old, and quite sound of mind until her death, she became living proof that if women received an education, they would not “overtax their brains.”

When Ellen attended Knox College, it was divided for instructional purposes into a male college and the Female Collegiate Department. Women were not admitted to the actual college until 1870. At a time when most women received at best an elementary education, Ellen was graduating from college, and was the first in her family to do so. She qualified for advance standing, and received her credentials in January 1859.

By the fact that Ellen desired and was able to attend college, it is obvious that she was not an average woman. She was an advocate of suffrage, believing that women had the power to enact change, and encouraged them to inform themselves on the issues so that they could use the ballot intelligently, once female suffrage was passed. (The 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, was ratified in August 1920). Her dedication to women improving themselves would also manifest itself later in Ellen’s will, as she left a substantial amount of money to the La Jolla Women’s Club, as well as the establishment of Scripps College in Pomona, CA.

Making Headlines

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Some might recognize the Scripps name as icons of the newspaper industry, but how did they get into the newspaper business, and what role did Ellen play? Ellen’s older brother, James, became an apprentice for the Chicago Tribune, and was later offered an opportunity to become pardt-owner and manager of the Detroit Daily Advertiser. This paper was destroyed by fire in 1873, and James used the insurance money to start the Detroit Evening News.

A few years after her graduation from college, Ellen moved to Detroit and became a proofreader in a newspaper office. She also invested her savings – one of her first philanthropic moves – in James’ Evening News, and became a proofreader by day and prepared articles for her brother’s newspaper by night.

Ellen later joined the staff of the Evening News, writing a Miscellany section that consisted of short, human interest paragraphs. Her section became so popular, however, that her writing was no longer used as filler and was given a column of its own.

When James wanted the company to become incorporated, the Scripps siblings hit a bit of a road bump: Michigan law required at least five stockholders for a company to become incorporated. However, the problem was easily solved by making family members stockholders, and Ellen was given two shares of stock that were valued at $1000 each in 1877, and worth 120 times that amount in 1914. Ellen made sure to attend all shareholders meetings, and was not afraid to voice her opinions, considering that she acted as director of the company.

In 1900, Ellen’s younger brother George died, and left the bulk of his estate to her, which annoyed James, who tried to break the will. He believed that George’s share in the profits of the Detroit News was too large for a mere woman like Ellen, and that the money should go to him as the head of the family. The suit failed, and the money George left to Ellen was later put towards the Scripps Institution of Oceanography; Ellen, however, wanted it made clear that the money was George’s benefaction, not hers, yet she is better known for the contribution towards the institution than George.

As the Scripps Institution of Oceanography is in San Diego, how did Ellen end up here, all the way from Detroit?

Migration to San Diego via the African Continent

Being very devoted to the many members of her family, Ellen often traveled with them to help restore their failing health. She traveled to Egypt with her brother E.W., before finally settling in San Diego. During that time, she discovered her gift for storytelling, as seen from her travel writings that were published in the Detroit News.

Here, she recounts her experience with sea sickness: “It was not simply nausea. That might have been borne; that, in fact, was rather a relief than otherwise. The central and radical phase was a never-ending, intermitting, whizzing, boiling brain that went round and round faster than any top, and with more commotion than a hundred buzz saws.”

From her travels, Ellen also became very committed to preserving history. For 12 years, she provided funding for important archaeological excavations in Egypt, which had the added benefit of bringing a core collection of Egyptian antiquities to San Diego.

Ellen was appalled at the desecration she encountered at the sites of ancient monuments by antiquity mongers, and was alarmed at the deplorable conditions some of the sites were in. She became a life member of the London-based Egypt Exploration Fund, an organization that still exists, through their American office in Boston. Founded in 1882, the organization was established specifically to fund surveys, explorations and excavations at Egypt’s ancient sites and publish the results of the work. Her areas of philanthropic interest were very diverse and enriching, and spanned from the African continent to the newspapers in Detroit, all across the United States to rest in San Diego.

Ellen accompanied her brother E.W. here to San Diego, probably for our lovely climate and ocean air, in 1890. She built a home in La Jolla in 1897, and resided there until her death in 1932. Over the next 35 years, Ellen would become San Diego’s leading philanthropist, leaving a significant legacy for future generations.

It was not all philanthropy and culture in San Diego for Miss Ellen Browning Scripps; she did have a bit of a wild side, if one could attribute that description to a petite woman of middling years who always retained her British accent. Ellen never purchased a car for herself, but E.W. bought her one as a present, complete with a chauffeur. She soon became a lover of extended auto rides, and had no qualms about the dangers of driving. It seems that this is the one place where Ellen allowed herself to escape from her life of ensuring that present and future generations’ knowledge and education was cared for through organizations and institutions. Her motto on the open road? “The faster the better.”