Katharine McCormick

Katharine Dexter McCormick

Born Katharine Dexter
(1875-08-27)August 27, 1875
Dexter, Michigan
Died December 28, 1967(1967-12-28) (aged 92)
Boston, Massachusetts
Nationality American

Katharine Dexter McCormick (August 27, 1875 – December 28, 1967) was a U.S. biologist, suffragist, philanthropist and, after her husband's death, heir to a substantial part of the McCormick family fortune. She funded most of the research necessary to develop the first birth control pill.

Early life and education

Katharine Dexter was born August 27, 1875 in Dexter, Michigan, in her grandparents' mansion, Gordon Hall, and grew up in Chicago where her father, Wirt Dexter, was a prominent lawyer. Following the early death of her father of a heart attack at age 57 when she was 14 years old, she and her mother Josephine moved to Boston in 1890. Four years later, her brother Samuel died of meningitis at age 25. Katharine graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1904, earning a BSc in biology.

Marriage to Stanley McCormick

She planned to attend medical school, but instead married Stanley Robert McCormick, the youngest son of Cyrus McCormick and heir to the International Harvester fortune, on September 15, 1904.[1] In September 1905, they moved into a house in Brookline, Massachusetts. The couple did not have any children.

For over a decade, since graduating cum laude from Princeton University in 1895 where he had also been a gifted athlete on the varsity tennis team, Stanley had been showing signs of progressively worsening mental illness. In September 1906, he was hospitalized for over a year at McLean Hospital and was originally diagnosed dementia praecox,[2] an early label for what is now today known as schizophrenia.[3]

In June 1908, Stanley was moved to the McCormick's Riven Rock estate in Montecito, California, where his schizophrenic older sister, Mary Virginia, had lived from 1898–1904 before being placed in a Huntsville, Alabama, sanitarium. While there, he was examined by the prominent German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin and diagnosed with the catatonic form of dementia praecox. In 1909, Stanley was declared legally incompetent and his guardianship divided between Katharine and the McCormick family.[3]

Women's rights activist

Katharine's plea for gender equality was apparent from early on. As an undergraduate at MIT, she bumped heads with the administration. MIT required that women wear hats (fashionably spruced up with feathers). Katharine refused. She argued that it was a fire hazard for feathered hats to be worn in laboratories.[4] As a result, MIT's administration changed their policies.

In 1909 McCormick spoke at the first outdoor rally for woman suffrage in Massachusetts. She became vice president and treasurer of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and funded the association's publication the Woman's Journal. McCormick organized much of Carrie Chapman Catt's efforts to gain ratification for the Nineteenth Amendment. While working with Catt, she met other social activists, including Mary Dennett and Margaret Sanger. Katharine met Sanger in 1917, and later that year joined The Committee of 100, a group of women who practiced promoting the legalization of birth control. During World War 1, Katharine also worked as a chairwoman of the association's War Service Department. In addition, she was a member of the Women's Committee of the Council of National Defense.[2] In 1920, after the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, McCormick became the vice president of the League of Women Voters.

Throughout the 1920s McCormick worked with Sanger on birth control issues, McCormick smuggled diaphragms from Europe to New York City for Sanger's Clinical Research Bureau, and in 1927 she hosted a reception of delegates attending the 1927 World Population Conference at her home in Geneva. Katharine helped smuggle in and distribute more than 1,000 diaphragms to Sanger's clinics.[5] In that year McCormick also turned to the science of endocrinology to aid her husband, believing that a defective adrenal gland caused his schizophrenia.


Inspired by her husband's diagnosis, Katharine was determined to find a cure. Believing that Stanley's illness was a defective adrenal gland, and could be treated with hormone treatment.,[6] she established the Neuroendocrine Research Foundation from 1927 to 1947 at Harvard Medical School, and subsidized the publication of the journal Endocrinology. Originally called the " Stanley R. McCormick Memorial Foundation for Neuro- Endocrine Research Corporation", it was the first U.S institute to launch research on the link between endocrinology and mental illness.[7] In addition, Katharine also created a research center for the care of the mentally ill at Worcester State Hospital. Katharine's mother Josephine died on November 16, 1937 at age 91 leaving Katharine an estate of more than 10 million dollars. Stanley died on January 19, 1947 at age 72 leaving an estate of over 35 million dollars to Katharine. She spent five years settling his estate, 85% of which went to pay inheritance taxes.

In 1953 McCormick met Gregory Goodwin Pincus through Margaret Sanger. Pincus had been working on developing a hormonal birth control method since 1951 and his own research laboratory, The Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology.[8] The drug company that supported Pincus stopped funding his pioneering research because he had yet to make a profit. As a result, Katharine started to fund Pincus's research foundation, The Worcester Foundation for Experimental biology. The donations started off at $100,000 annually, and later $150,000-$180,000 up until her death in 1967.[8] In sum, McCormick had provided almost an entire $2 million ($23 million today) of her own money into the development of contraceptive pill. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the sale of the Pill in 1957 for menstrual disorders and added contraception to its indications in 1960. Even after the pill was approved, she continued to fund Pincus's lab and research on ways into improving birth control research through the 1960s.


After the successful development and approval of the contraceptive pill, Katharine yielded her attention to the lack of housing for women at MIT.[10] MIT was always coeducational it could provide housing to only some fifty female students. Therefore, many of the women who attended MIT had to be local residents. However, the place of women at the Institute was far from secure as Katharine Dexter told Dorothy Weeks (a physicist and mathematician who earned her master's and doctorate from MIT) that she had lived "in a cold fear that suddenly—unexpectedly—Tech might exclude women...".

In order to provide female students a permanent place at MIT, she would donate the money to found Stanley McCormick Hall, an all female dormitory that would allow MIT to house 200 female students. Katharine's funding made a tremendous impact of the number of women at MIT, increasing from 3% to 40%.[11] The ramifications of the hall are best stated by William Hecht '61, executive vice president of the Association of Alumni and Alumnae of MIT when he said, "the visible presence of women at MIT helped open up the science and engineering professions to a large part of the population that before had been excluded. It demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that at MIT men and women are equal."

Following her death in 1967, aged 92, her will provided $5 million to Stanford University School of Medicine to support female physicians, $5 million to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, which funded the Katharine Dexter McCormick Library in New York City, and $1 million to the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology. In addition, Katharine made arrangements for $500,000 to be donated to the Chicago Art Institute.

Katharine McCormick is a character in T.C. Boyle's novel Riven Rock (1998), which is mainly about her husband Stanley's mental illness.

She was inducted into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame in 2000.

See also


  1. L'histoire du château (PDF) (in French), retrieved 2013-12-05
  2. 1 2 "Katharine McCormick's Crusade (Part 1)". Providentia. Retrieved 2016-03-08.
  3. 1 2 Miriam Kleiman (Summer 2007). "Rich, famous, and questionably sane: when a wealthy heir's family sought help from a hospital for the insane". Prologue: Quarterly of the National Archives and Records Administration. 39 (2): 38–47.
  4. "Katharine Dexter (McCormick), Class of 1904". libraries.mit.edu. Retrieved 2016-03-07.
  5. "A Mind of Her Own". MIT Technology Review. Retrieved 2016-03-07.
  6. "McCormick, Katharine Dexter (1875-1967) (birth control)". what-when-how.com. Retrieved 2016-03-07.
  7. "Rich, Famous, and Questionably Sane". www.archives.gov. Retrieved 2016-03-07.
  8. 1 2 "Katharine McCormick (1876-1967) | The Embryo Project Encyclopedia". embryo.asu.edu. Retrieved 2016-03-07.
  9. "Katharine McCormick, biologist & millionaire philanthropist - Amazing Women In History". Amazing Women In History. Retrieved 2016-03-07.
  10. "Katharine Dexter (McCormick), Class of 1904: Exhibits: Institute Archives & Special Collections: MIT". libraries.mit.edu. Retrieved 2016-03-07.
  11. "McCormick, Katharine Dexter - National Women's Hall of Fame". National Women’s Hall of Fame. Retrieved 2016-03-07.

Further reading

External links

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