McCormick, Katharine (1875–1967)

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McCormick, Katharine (1875–1967)

American philanthropist and advocate for women's reproductive freedom . Name variations: Katharine Dexter McCormick. Born Katharine Dexter on August 27, 1875, in Dexter, Michigan; died on December 28, 1967, in Boston, Massachusetts; daughter of Wirt Dexter and Josephine (Moore) Dexter; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, B.S., 1904; married Stanley Robert McCormick (son of Nettie Fowler McCormick [1835–1923]), in September 1904 (died 1947); no children.

Inherited family fortune (1894); became active in national suffrage moment (1909); began funding research into an oral contraceptive for women (1952); because of her efforts, first wing of M.I.T. dormitory for women opened (1962).

Katharine McCormick, who for years gave generously of her fortune to scientists working to develop a reliable method of contraception for women, was born in 1875 in Dexter, Michigan, a town bearing her family name. Her father Wirt Dexter was a prominent Chicago attorney, while her former schoolteacher mother Josephine Moore Dexter was descended from an esteemed New England family; McCormick's maternal grandfather had led settlers from New England to Michigan. When Wirt Dexter died in 1889, and his only son died five years later, McCormick and her mother inherited a great deal of money.

Not yet 20, McCormick left the Midwest for Boston, where she and her mother lived in a Commonwealth Avenue mansion. Free to follow their own intellectual and personal convictions without the disapproval or legal domination of husbands, fathers, or brothers, both women turned their energies to the growing women's suffrage movement. McCormick desired a solid education, and was able to enroll at the rigorous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) after spending three years preparing for the school's admission exam. She earned her B.S. in biology in 1904 with a thesis on "Fatigue of the Cardiac Muscles in Reptilia."

That same year, she married Stanley McCormick at her mother's second home on Switzerland's Lake Geneva. An heir to the McCormick fortune, he was the son of Nettie Fowler McCormick and Cyrus McCormick, inventor of the reaper machine that revolutionized agriculture, and a comptroller for the family business, International Harvester. Stanley soon began to display signs of mental illness and was declared legally incompetent by 1909. Katharine spent years working with psychiatrists and a host of other health professionals trying to ascertain the root of his affliction. Some doctors asserted that Stanley McCormick's apparent schizophrenia was due to unresolved problems with his family and to sexual guilt; when some tried to restrict her from visiting him, she launched a series of legal challenges from which she emerged victorious in 1930. McCormick also gave generously to medical research in the field of mental health during these years. She founded the Neuroendocrine Research Foundation at Harvard Medical School in 1927 and funded publication of the journal Endocrinology. Stanley McCormick's condition never improved, however, and he died in 1947 in the palatial Santa Barbara, California, home that had served as his asylum.

Katharine McCormick had also devoted her time and assets to other causes. In 1909, she began actively participating in the women's suffrage movement and spoke at Massachusetts' first outdoor demonstration by women for the right to vote. McCormick, along with Mary Ware Dennett and several others, went on to organize 97 more open-air rallies for women's rights while also lobbying the state legislature. For years she worked with Carrie Chapman Catt in the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), and chaired its War Service Department during World War I. The social changes wrought by that international conflict eventually brought success to the movement, and American women won the right to cast ballots in federal elections in 1920.

But it was in the realm of reproductive freedom that Katharine McCormick's convictions and support resulted in direct progress. During World War I, she became an ally of Margaret Sanger , a prominent activist in the birth-control movement in the early decades of the 20th century, when even supplying information on contraceptive methods was illegal. McCormick supported Sanger's efforts financially, and was one of many travelers who smuggled European diaphragms into the United States to give American women access to them. For years McCormick funded research projects on contraception, and eventually came to know a biologist and hormone researcher named Gregory Pincus. In 1953 she solicited his help in developing a safe and effective contraceptive for women, and provided him and his research institute with funds to continue his experimental research with synthetic hormones. This research had been dismissed as unpromising by a pharmaceutical company, but McCormick thought otherwise because of her scientific background and knowledge of endocrinology. Enovid, the first oral contraceptive for women, came on the market seven years later and quite literally changed the world. Popularly known as the pill (as are its lower-dose successors), it is considered one of the most significant inventions of the 20th century.

At her alma mater, McCormick funded the construction of two dormitories for women. M.I.T. had long balked at rescinding its annual quota on female students, declaring that it did not have sufficient space to house them, but the construction of two Stanley McCormick Halls, in 1962 and 1968, effectively negated that argument. Before her death in 1967, McCormick also gave money in her husband's name to the art museum of Santa Barbara, and in her will left a $5 million bequest to the Planned Parenthood Foundation of America.


Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980.

Carol Brennan , Grosse Pointe, Michigan

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McCormick, Katharine (1875–1967)

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