Stanford, Jane (1828–1905)

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Stanford, Jane (1828–1905)

American philanthropist and co-founder of Stanford University. Name variations: Mrs. Leland Stanford. Born Jane Lathrop on August 25, 1828, in Albany, New York; died of a heart attack on February 28, 1905, in Honolulu, Hawaii, while on a cruise; daughter of Dyer Lathrop (a businessman) and Jane Ann (Shields) Lathrop; educated at Albany, New York, Female Academy, 1840–41; married Leland Stanford (an attorney and governor of California), in 1850 (died 1893); children: Leland Stanford, Jr. (1868–1884).

Moved from New York to California, following husband, who made a fortune in the mining business; after son's death, devoted the family fortune to the establishment of Stanford University; after husband's death, continued to oversee the construction of the Stanford campus.

Descended from a member of one of the first wave of English colonists to settle New England, Jane Stanford was born in 1828 and raised in Albany, New York, where her father Dyer Lathrop was a successful businessman and her mother Jane Shields Lathrop raised the couple's seven children in the family's comfortable middle-class home. In 1850, at age 22, Jane married Leland Stanford, an ambitious and enterprising attorney, and they moved west to the growing community of Port Washington, Wisconsin, where Leland had begun a law practice. The couple's early years would be difficult ones that would find them often apart; in 1852, Leland's law office, including his entire law library, was destroyed in a fire. Jane returned to her family home in Albany while Leland followed his brothers to the West Coast in an effort to recoup his financial losses. A savvy businessman, he found success in the mining trade, and returned to Jane in 1855 with a fortune of over $125,000. The lure of California and its riches soon proved too strong a temptation for the Stanfords, and they moved west again to make their home in Sacramento, Leland with the intention of embarking on a political career. Elected governor of California in 1861, Leland made millions of dollars as a railroad builder over the next decade. In addition to performing her role as the wife of a successful businessman and politician, Jane Stanford was involved in various philanthropic endeavors until the birth of her first and only child, Leland, Jr., in 1868.

Leland, Jr., became the focus of the couple's life, and he received every benefit that their vast wealth could bestow. Tragically, while in Florence, Italy, during a world tour taken by the family in celebration of his anticipated first year of college, Leland, Jr., was stricken with typhoid fever and died on March 13, 1884, shortly before his 16th birthday. In dealing with their tragic loss, the bereaved parents found an outlet for their grief by remembering their son's love of learning. They determined to found a university in his honor, to be named the Leland Stanford Jr. University, and in 1885 plans were underway to build it on their 7,000-acre agricultural estate in Palo Alto; the present-day Stanford University is the result of their efforts.

The university held its initial classes in the fall of 1891, using the first buildings constructed from the couple's master plan for the university. Unfortunately, Leland Stanford, Sr., died two years later, leaving Jane Stanford to sort out a complex financial situation that included closing out her husband's business interests in addition to setting up plans for the administration of the school's $20 million endowment. Advised to close the school while funds were locked during the probate process, Stanford declined, and used her own income from her husband's estate and monies gained from the sale of her jewelry to keep the school open. In 1894, the school's existence was again threatened when the U.S. government filed a $15 million claim against the Stanford estate. Only by the considerable lobbying efforts of Jane Stanford was the government's claim recalled, and the school's endowment was completed in 1901 through the transference of $11 million in negotiable securities and 100,000 acres of real estate.

Under Stanford University's founding grant, Jane Stanford was given a great deal of power in determining matters regarding the planning and growth of the campus as well as in the choice of curriculum and faculty at the college. Idealizing the school as a shrine to her son and husband, Stanford began an ambitious building program that sorely tested the school's budget. While her dictates became increasingly whimsical due to her escalating reliance on spiritualism in making decisions, the efforts of the school's president to interject reasonable questions regarding fiscal restraint went unheeded. The conflict between Stanford's idealized vision and the school's ability to provide a proper education came to a head in 1900 when the 72-year-old Stanford demanded that popular economics professor and respected scholar Edward A. Ross be dismissed from his teaching position due to his overt socialist leanings. Demanding non-partisanship, Stanford stated that her decision was based on the prayer she had done concerning the matter, a justification that did not sit well with several members of the university's staff, who promptly resigned in protest. The incident made the national press, and educators from across the nation joined in condemning Stanford's decision to dismiss Ross.

Hurt by the outcry from Stanford faculty, Jane Stanford relinquished her powers under the trusteeship in 1903 and, after a world tour, revisited schools and friends in New York State and throughout New England. While on a cruise in the Pacific, she suffered a fatal heart attack; she was buried with her son and husband on the campus of Stanford University. In addition to her dedication to Stanford University, Jane Stanford is remembered for founding several kindergartens in the Palo Alto area, and for establishing an orphanage, the Children's Hospital, in Albany, New York, in memory of her parents.


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

King, William C. Woman. Springfield, MA: King-Richardson, 1902.

Pamela Shelton , freelance writer, Avon, Connecticut

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Stanford, Jane (1828–1905)

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