Scripps, Ellen Browning (1836–1932)

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Scripps, Ellen Browning (1836–1932)

English-born American newspaper publisher and philanthropist. Born on October 18, 1836, in London, England; died in her sleep on August 3, 1932, in La Jolla, California; daughter of James Mogg Scripps and Ellen Mary Scripps; graduated from Knox College in 1859; never married; no children.

The energetic and eclectic Ellen Browning Scripps started her life in London, England, on October 18, 1836. Her mother died when Scripps was five, and three years later her father moved his six children to farmland he owned in Illinois. Scripps developed an interest in literature early in life, through reading books from her father's large library to her many younger brothers and sisters (her father remarried and had five more children). When she got older, she had the rare opportunity for a woman of her time to attend college. She enrolled in the two-year course of the Female Department at Knox College, graduating in 1859, and then spent several years teaching. With the advent of the Civil War, Scripps involved herself in war-relief efforts, working for the U.S. Sanitary Commission and the Freedmen's Association.

In 1867, Scripps began what was to become an involved career in journalism. She assisted an older brother, James E. Scripps, in his management of a Detroit newspaper by serving as a proofreader and investing her meager savings in the venture. In 1873, James launched a new newspaper, the Detroit Evening News, and Scripps served as proofreader, copyreader, and front-page feature writer. Her column, "Matters and Things," was aimed at a large audience and included items of special interest to women. Scripps' presence also helped to smooth occasional rifts between her brother and other family members, a number of whom were also employed at the paper.

In 1878, Scripps provided financial backing for her younger half-brother, Edward Scripps, to begin a newspaper of his own, the Penny Press, in Cleveland, Ohio; for a time, she worked at the new paper as well as the Detroit Evening News. While she eventually cut down on her work duties, Scripps continued to reinvest in the newspaper ventures and helped Edward lay the basis for what would become the Scripps-Howard conglomerate of papers. Eventually, she had holdings in 16 daily newspapers across the country, greatly multiplying her income.

When Edward moved to California, Scripps followed him and eventually built her own home in La Jolla. Aided by investments in local real estate, her income increased over 40 times in the first 30 years of the 20th century, and she chose to manage the money herself rather than entrust it to lawyers. She donated much of her money to causes she considered worthy, and her generosity made her a major philanthropic figure. Although she worked in the newspaper business, Scripps also had a keen interest in science and established institutions geared towards research; her donations reflected her eclectic interests. With her brother Edward, she spearheaded the establishment of the Marine Biological Association of San Diego, which later became the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. She also funded the Scripps Memorial Hospital in her new hometown of La Jolla, later known as the Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation, dedicated to the study of metabolism. Torrey Pines Park and the San Diego Zoo also received substantial funding from Scripps. Education received a similar boost from her wealth, with her largest contribution involving the founding, in 1926, of Scripps College for Women, one of the Claremont Colleges, in Claremont, California. Scripps wrote the school's mission statement, which speaks of the need for a college "to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously and hopefully." Although she was in her 90s when Scripps opened, she contributed over $1.5 million to the college (which she called her "new adventure") during the remainder of her life, and left it a generous provision after she died. Her alma mater Knox College likewise received a $100,000 gift.

Ellen Scripps refrained from accepting high-level posts in organizations (the exception being her directorship of the National Recreation Association from 1917 on), but she was not politically inactive. She opposed the wave of deportations of alleged communist agitators (1919–20) which occurred under Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, and demanded freedom for political prisoners as a member of the Amnesty League. She was also an opponent of the death penalty. Scripps died at the age of 96 in her home in La Jolla on August 3, 1932. Scripps College remains a well-respected liberal arts college for women, with just over 1,000 students.


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.

Catherine Dybiec Holm , M.S., Cook, Minnesota