Palmer, Lizzie Merrill (1838–1916)

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Palmer, Lizzie Merrill (1838–1916)

American philanthropist whose bequest founded the Palmer Motherhood and Home Training School in Detroit, later known as the Merrill-Palmer Institute. Born Lizzie Pitts Merrill in Portland, Maine, on October 8, 1838; died at Great Neck, Long Island, New York, on July 28, 1916; only child of Charles Merrill (a lumber baron) and Frances (Pitts) Merrill; married Thomas Witherell Palmer (a businessman), on October 16, 1855 (died 1913); no children, but raised and educated several homeless children.

The only child of a lumber baron, Lizzie Palmer was born in Portland, Maine, and was raised there and in central Michigan, where the family moved in the 1850s. At age 17, she married Thomas Palmer, a young Detroit businessman who later became a partner in her father's business. The couple settled outside of Detroit, where they were active politically (supporting woman suffrage and prohibition), and also initiated their lifelong involvement in philanthropy. They supported the Detroit Institute of Art, the YMCA, The University of Michigan, and a number of hospitals in the area. They also founded the Michigan branch of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

In 1883, Thomas was elected to the U.S. Senate, and the couple went to Washington. Despite her delicate health, a holdover from her youth, Palmer became an active and popular hostess. In 1899, she accompanied her husband to Spain, where he served for a year as a U.S. minister. When he resigned his position, they returned to Detroit, bringing with them the young son of a Spanish military officer, who subsequently became their ward. He was the first of several children that the couple, who had no children of their own, took in over the years and educated. Once out of public life, the Palmers lived at their country estate, a 600-acre farm outside of the city that Thomas had inherited from his mother. (In 1887, they had built a four-room log cabin on the property, and outfitted it with authentic pioneer heirlooms from their own family. In 1893, the cabin became part of Palmer Park, a parcel of land the Palmers gave to the city of Detroit for public use.)

Due to a further decline in her health, Palmer spent more and more time in her later years at a second family residence, Larchmont Manor, on Long Island Sound, New York. Following her husband's death in 1913, she devoted her remaining years to plans for the disposition of her now sizable fortune. She died of pneumonia in 1916, leaving the bulk of her estate—estimated at $3 million—for the founding and maintenance of Palmer Motherhood and Home Training School, an institution for girls. The school, which opened in 1922 under the directorship of Edna Noble White , the head of the home economics department at Ohio State University and the president of the American Home Economics Association, educated young women of college age in the principles of homemaking and motherhood. Implementing a course of study based on observation and experience, the school's focal points were its self-contained nursery school, where children were observed and studied, and its residence halls, where students provided all of their own meals and homemaking needs. The school, which evolved into the Merrill-Palmer Institute of Human Development and Family Life, also served as a vital resource to the Detroit community through its nursery school, summer camp, and guidance programs, and through its research and teacher-training.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Palmer, Lizzie Merrill (1838–1916)

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