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Schuyler, Louisa Lee (1837–1926)

Schuyler, Louisa Lee (1837–1926)

American reformer. Born on October 26, 1837, in New York City; died on October 10, 1926, in Highland Falls, New York; daughter of George Lee Schuyler (an engineer, lawyer, and grandson of Revolutionary War general Philip Schuyler and Catherine Van Rensselaer Schuyler) and Eliza Hamilton Schuyler (great-granddaughter of Philip Schuyler and Catherine Van Rensselaer Schuyler and granddaughter of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton and Alexander Hamilton); educated privately; never married.

Born in New York City on October 26, 1837, Louisa Lee Schuyler enjoyed wealth and a distinguished lineage. Her father George Lee Schuyler, an engineer and lawyer, was the grandson of Catherine Van Rensselaer Schuyler and Revolutionary War general Philip Schuyler; her mother Eliza Hamilton Schuyler was the great-granddaughter of the same Catherine and Philip Schuyler and granddaughter of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton and Alexander Hamilton, the famous American statesman. Louisa spent most of her young life with her older brother and younger sister in the care of private tutors at the Hamilton family estate on the Hudson River near Dobbs Ferry, New York.

Schuyler got her first taste of charitable work through her parents' support of the Children's Aid Society of New York. She became involved in the organization in her early 20s, as a volunteer sewing instructor to immigrant children. She turned her efforts in a different direction when she became involved with another of her parents' pet projects, the Woman's Central Association of Relief, in 1861. In conjunction with the U.S. Sanitary Commission, the organization provided regional support to the Union cause during the Civil War. As chair of the group's committee of correspondence, Schuyler organized and managed a network of local groups that provided food, clothing and medical supplies to Civil War army camps and hospitals. She became widely known for her efficient leadership as well as for her ability to inspire others. She believed that the volunteers would do what was needed as long as she provided the necessary information and direction.

Establishing a lifelong pattern in which a sudden burst of energy would give way to extreme exhaustion, Schuyler collapsed when the end of the Civil War dissolved the association. She spent the following six years in convalescence in Europe and Egypt, then returned to the United States in 1871 and refocused her efforts on helping those in need. Following the same strategy as she had in the war, she organized her neighbors and other prominent New York City women into a visiting committee to local jails and hospitals. In 1872, she created the State Charities Aid Association (SCAA) to formalize these citizen groups. Through frequent visits to jails, hospitals, schools and asylums, the SCAA analyzed each site's need for administrative or program improvements and educated the public about these needs. The group's efforts resulted in passage of a variety of legislative reforms to improve conditions in these facilities.

Schuyler devoted her personal efforts within the organization to improving the nursing profession and care for the mentally ill. In May 1873, she established a professional training school for nurses at Bellevue Hospital, the first of its size to maintain such high standards. In 1884, she initiated a large campaign to move the mentally ill from county poorhouses to state hospitals. New York State passed such legislation in 1890, followed in 1892 by a law providing separate accommodations and treatment for epileptics. Schuyler was instrumental in the passage of this latter legislation as well.

By 1907, Schuyler's success in improving social welfare was well known, and she was asked to become a charter trustee in the Russell Sage Foundation, founded by Margaret Olivia Sage . Her focus shifted to the prevention of blindness in children, and she worked with several organizations—including the SCAA, the American Medical Association, and the New York Association for the Blind—to create the National Committee (later renamed Society) for the Prevention of Blindness in 1915. Schuyler's decades of reform led Columbia University to bestow an honorary Doctorate of Laws on her in 1915, only the second woman to receive such an honor. She was also awarded a medal in 1923 from the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Association.

Schuyler's charitable work was more significant in the precedent it set for upper-class philanthropy than for its actual accomplishments. She demonstrated the need for women of social standing to take on leadership roles in bringing about reform. While many of society's elite had confined their charitable work to financial gifts, Schuyler endeavored to encourage hands-on organization of the middle classes to promote change, even though she herself played a minimal role in the day-to-day happenings of her own institutions.

In 1921, Schuyler's health deteriorated due to an illness that caused virtual blindness and paralysis on one side. She spent her final years writing magazine articles and letters on social welfare issues. She died on October 10, 1926, at the country estate of J.P. Morgan in Highland Falls, New York.

sources:

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

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Sally Cole-Misch , freelance writer, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan

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