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Scripps, Ellen (1836-1932)

Ellen Browning Scripps – Who was the woman behind the philanthropist?

To many San Diegans, the name Ellen Browning Scripps brings to mind the buildings and institutions named after her family, such as Scripps Memorial Hospital and Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Many people also know that she lived in La Jolla, never married, and contributed great sums of money to many different organizations, but who was the woman behind the philanthropist?

Early Years

Ellen Browning Scripps was born in London on October 18, 1836. Her mother died when she was four and a half, after which Ellen spent three years at a boarding school until the entire family emigrated to America, settling in Illinois in 1844. Ellen’s father brought his library with the best of English literature with him, and it was through that library that Ellen developed a fondness for reading.

Once her father remarried, Ellen gained five half-siblings, and the total number of living Scripps children rounded out at 10 (three died in infancy). As the second oldest girl, Ellen’s responsibilities as a child and young woman included cooking, mending, sweeping, sewing and washing, as well as keeping up with her own studies.


Ellen completed high school at age 17, and desired to continue on to college, but had no money to do so. In order to save up money, like any enterprising young person, she lived at home, and taught elementary school for two years. Having saved enough, Ellen was able to attend Knox College in 1856.

At the time, it was generally believed that women would overtax their mind and cause themselves to become ill if they did too much mental work. However, female students applying to Knox College were held to the same admission standards as the male students. The required entrance exams for Knox College were in algebra, geometry, English, Latin and Greek grammar, as well as in Caesar, Ovid and Xenophon. Passing these exams allowed women to prove that they could do exactly the same work the men were doing. As Ellen lived to be almost 96 years old, and quite sound of mind until her death, she became living proof that if women received an education, they would not “overtax their brains.”

When Ellen attended Knox College, it was divided for instructional purposes into a male college and the Female Collegiate Department. Women were not admitted to the actual college until 1870. At a time when most women received at best an elementary education, Ellen was graduating from college, and was the first in her family to do so. She qualified for advance standing, and received her credentials in January 1859.

By the fact that Ellen desired and was able to attend college, it is obvious that she was not an average woman. She was an advocate of suffrage, believing that women had the power to enact change, and encouraged them to inform themselves on the issues so that they could use the ballot intelligently, once female suffrage was passed. (The 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, was ratified in August 1920). Her dedication to women improving themselves would also manifest itself later in Ellen’s will, as she left a substantial amount of money to the La Jolla Women’s Club, as well as the establishment of Scripps College in Pomona, CA.

Making Headlines

Some might recognize the Scripps name as icons of the newspaper industry, but how did they get into the newspaper business, and what role did Ellen play? Ellen’s older brother, James, became an apprentice for the  Chicago Tribune , and was later offered an opportunity to become pardt-owner and manager of the Detroit Daily Advertiser . This paper was destroyed by fire in 1873, and James used the insurance money to start the  Detroit Evening News .

A few years after her graduation from college, Ellen moved to Detroit and became a proofreader in a newspaper office. She also invested her savings – one of her first philanthropic moves – in James’  Evening News , and became a proofreader by day and prepared articles for her brother’s newspaper by night.

Ellen later joined the staff of the  Evening News , writing a Miscellany section that consisted of short, human interest paragraphs. Her section became so popular, however, that her writing was no longer used as filler and was given a column of its own.

When James wanted the company to become incorporated, the Scripps siblings hit a bit of a road bump: Michigan law required at least five stockholders for a company to become incorporated. However, the problem was easily solved by making family members stockholders, and Ellen was given two shares of stock that were valued at $1000 each in 1877, and worth 120 times that amount in 1914. Ellen made sure to attend all shareholders meetings, and was not afraid to voice her opinions, considering that she acted as director of the company.

In 1900, Ellen’s younger brother George died, and left the bulk of his estate to her, which annoyed James, who tried to break the will. He believed that George’s share in the profits of the Detroit News was too large for a mere woman like Ellen, and that the money should go to him as the head of the family. The suit failed, and the money George left to Ellen was later put towards the Scripps Institution of Oceanography ; Ellen, however, wanted it made clear that the money was George’s benefaction, not hers, yet she is better known for the contribution towards the institution than George.

As the Scripps Institution of Oceanography is in San Diego, how did Ellen end up here, all the way from Detroit?

Migration to San Diego via the African Continent

Being very devoted to the many members of her family, Ellen often traveled with them to help restore their failing health. She traveled to Egypt with her brother E.W., before finally settling in San Diego. During that time, she discovered her gift for storytelling, as seen from her travel writings that were published in the  Detroit News .

Here, she recounts her experience with sea sickness: “It was not simply nausea. That might have been borne; that, in fact, was rather a relief than otherwise. The central and radical phase was a never-ending, intermitting, whizzing, boiling brain that went round and round faster than any top, and with more commotion than a hundred buzz saws.”

From her travels, Ellen also became very committed to preserving history. For 12 years, she provided funding for important archaeological excavations in Egypt, which had the added benefit of bringing a core collection of Egyptian antiquities to San Diego.

Ellen was appalled at the desecration she encountered at the sites of ancient monuments by antiquity mongers, and was alarmed at the deplorable conditions some of the sites were in. She became a life member of the London-based Egypt Exploration Fund, an organization that still exists, through their American office in Boston. Founded in 1882, the organization was established specifically to fund surveys, explorations and excavations at Egypt’s ancient sites and publish the results of the work. Her areas of philanthropic interest were very diverse and enriching, and spanned from the African continent to the newspapers in Detroit, all across the United States to rest in San Diego.

Ellen Browning Scripps' bookplate

Ellen accompanied her brother E.W. here to San Diego, probably for our lovely climate and ocean air, in 1890. She built a home in La Jolla in 1897, and resided there until her death in 1932. Over the next 35 years, Ellen would become San Diego’s leading philanthropist, leaving a significant legacy for future generations.

It was not all philanthropy and culture in San Diego for Miss Ellen Browning Scripps; she did have a bit of a wild side, if one could attribute that description to a petite woman of middling years who always retained her British accent. Ellen never purchased a car for herself, but E.W. bought her one as a present, complete with a chauffeur. She soon became a lover of extended auto rides, and had no qualms about the dangers of driving. It seems that this is the one place where Ellen allowed herself to escape from her life of ensuring that present and future generations’ knowledge and education was cared for through organizations and institutions. Her motto on the open road? “The faster the better.”

Contributions to the San Diego Natural History Museum

During her lifetime, and through her will after her death, Ellen gave significant support to the San Diego Natural History Museum, both in monetary and cultural aspects.

The first building in Balboa Park that the San Diego Natural History Society was based in was the Nevada building, which had been erected for the Panama-California exposition in 1915, which was not fireproof.

In 1920, Ellen donated a large sum of money to the Society for the “purpose of extending to the people the educational advantages of a wider knowledge of natural history,” which allowed them to move from the Nevada building into the larger Foreign Arts’ Building. A museum brochure from that year outlined the Society’s aim to diffuse knowledge of the natural sciences, foster an appreciation of nature and conserve valuable natural resources. In order to accomplish these purposes, the Society would maintain a natural history museum with exhibits open to the public, a research lab for students and a scientific library. The museum, through its educational department, would also be available to school groups, and offered weekly excursions in the park and illustrated lectures at the museum.

Later, Ellen’s will provided the Museum with a donation of $100,000 for the construction of a fireproof building in which to house items she bequeathed to them, as well as the sum of $50,000. Among the items she donated were many valuable books and a compilation of 1094 individual paintings of wild flowers done by Albert Valentien , whom Ellen had commissioned in 1908 to paint “ the wild flowers of California .” She also gave the Museum an oil painting of the conservationist, naturalist and writer John Burroughs, painted by H.G. Shriner, which was the last portrait of Burroughs to be painted before his death a few months later. The stipulation that these paintings were to be housed in a fireproof building may have been the result of a fire that occurred in Ellen’s home. From her own experience, she undoubtedly understood the importance of ensuring that no items of historical and cultural value were lost to fire.

During her time in San Diego, Ellen was not only a benefactor to the museum, but also a patron: she was a frequent visitor to the museum, attending lectures and enjoying new exhibits.

Philanthropic Altruism or Ethical Egoism?

What kind of a philanthropist was Ellen Scripps? Did she give money because she wanted those feelings of satisfaction that one gets when one donates to a cause? Did she truly believe that her money could aid others, rather than herself?

Frances K. Hepner, author of Ellen Browning Scripps: Her Life and Times, wrote that: “[Ellen’s] gifts were based on her understanding of people’s needs. Her idea was to help people help themselves, to create environments in which people could become more worthy participants in the life of the community, to stimulate creative thinking, to bind groups together with unbreakable bonds of friendship developed by joint efforts for the common good.”

In Ellen’s obituary, a note from the editor stated that, during her lifetime, it was almost impossible to acknowledge her generosity, as she would not permit her name or activities to be published. Ellen always protested against the praise she received for her philanthropic efforts, because she felt that the credit should go to the creative and administrative mind, rather than to the mere instrument. She gave organizations the money they needed to start, but it was up to them to continue the process and create something that would benefit society. Ellen did not believe in charity. She rarely gave to a single individual or single causes, but regarded wealth as capital to be reinvested in human enterprise.

As a condition of her 1920 gift to the Natural History Society for the purchase of a new building, Ellen requested that the Society take action to interest others in the Museum, either as contributors or as members. Staff of the Museum created photographic scrapbooks of research expeditions to Baja California, documenting the experiences to prove to Miss Scripps that the Museum was working to educate the public and expand scientific knowledge about the area, all with the help of her donations.

An editorial in the San Diego Union asserted that: “Miss Scripps had made a career out of giving money to worthy causes. That implies the fact that she had money to give. But her success in giving is notable, and that implies that she has given more than money... She has given intelligence, foresight, warmth of heart, love, understanding, [and] encouragement...”

Ellen Browning Scripps died on August 3, 1932, at age 96, yet her philanthropy continues past her death. Her contributions during her life, and through her legacy, led to the development of many places, organizations, and cultural institutions well-known around San Diego, and insured that those places would be of service to San Diego’s future generations.


Sources Consulted from the Natural History Museum:

Ellen Browning Scripps , by J.C. Harper, attorney for Ellen B. Scripps, produced in La Jolla, CA, 1936.

Ellen Browning Scripps: Her Life and Times , by Frances K. Hepner, produced by San Diego State College, 1966.

Inspired by Nature: The San Diego Natural History Museum after 125 Years  (Iris Engstrand and Anne Bullard, San Diego: San Diego Natural History Museum, 1999). 

Last Will and Testament of Ellen Browning Scripps , attorneys Curtis Hillyer and J.C. Harper for Robert P. Scripps, Executor. Superior Court of State of California in and for the Country of San Diego, no. 19706.

“Moving Natural History Museum,” by Clinton G. Abbott, from November 1932 newsletter.
“The New Museum,”  San Diego Sun , January 12, 1933.

“San Diego’s New Natural History Museum,” by Clinton G. Abbott,  The Federation , February 1922.

“Death Brings Ellen Scripps Closer to San Diego: San Diego’s Most Useful Citizen---America’s Ideal in Citizenship,” by Myron Lustig,  San Diego Union , August 21, 1932.

Natural History Museum Bulletin , April 1, 1933.

San Diego Sun , May 29, 1934. 


Other sources:

How Ellen Scripps Brought Ancient Egypt to San Diego , by Bruce Kamerling