Katharine Dexter McCormick (August 27, 1875 – December 28, 1967) was a U.S. biologist, suffragist, philanthropist and, after her husband's death, heir to a substantial part of the McCormick fortune. She funded most of the research necessary to develop the first birth control pill.
Read excerpts from Katharine Dexter McCormick: pioneer for women's rights by Armond Fields,
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Early life and education
Katherine Dexter was born in Dexter, Michigan, in her grandparents' mansion, Gordon Hall, and grew up in Chicago where her father, Wirt Dexter, was a prominent lawyer. Following the early death of her father of a heart attack at age 57 when she was 14 years old, she and her mother Josephine moved to Boston in 1890. Four years later, her brother Samuel died of meningitis at age 25. In 1904 McCormick became the second woman to graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the first woman to receive a science degree from MIT, a BSc with major in biology.
Marriage to Stanley McCormick
She planned to attend medical school, but chose to marry Stanley McCormick, youngest son of Cyrus McCormick, an heir to the International Harvester fortune. They married at the Dexter family Château de Prangins on Lake Geneva, Switzerland, on September 15, 1904 and remained in Europe until June 1905. In September 1905, they moved into a home in Brookline, Massachusetts. The couple did not have any children.
For over a decade, since graduating cum laude from Princeton University in 1895 where he had also been a gifted athlete on the varsity tennis team, Stanley had been showed signs of progressively worsening mental illness. In September 1906, he was hospitalized for over a year at McLean Hospital and diagnosed with schizophrenia.
In June 1908, Stanley was moved to the McCormick's Riven Rock estate in Montecito, California where Stanley's schizophrenic older sister, Mary Virginia, had lived from 1898-1904 before being placed in a Huntsville, Alabama sanitarium. While there, he was examined by the prominent German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin and diagnosed with the catatonic form of dementia praecox. In 1909, Stanley was declared legally incompetent and his guardianship split between Katharine and the McCormick family.
Women's rights activist
In 1909 McCormick spoke at the first outdoor rally for woman suffrage in Massachusetts. She became vice president and treasurer of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and funded the association's publication the Woman's Journal. McCormick organized much of Carrie Chapman Catt's efforts to gain ratification for the Nineteenth Amendment. While working with Catt, she met other social activists, including Mary Dennett and Margaret Sanger. In 1920 McCormick became the vice president of the League of Women Voters.
Throughout the 1920s McCormick worked with Sanger on birth control issues, McCormick smuggled diaphragms from Europe to New York City for Sanger's Clinical Research Bureau, and in 1927 she hosted a reception of delegates attending the 1927 World Population Conference at her home in Geneva. In that year McCormick also turned to the science of endocrinology to aid her husband, believing that a defective adrenal gland caused his schizophrenia.
She established the Neuroendocrine Research Foundation at Harvard Medical School, and subsidized the publication of the journal Endocrinology. Katharine's mother Josephine died on November 16, 1937 at age 91 leaving Katharine an estate of more than 10 million dollars. Stanley died on January 19, 1947 at age 72 leaving an estate of over 35 million dollars to Katharine. She spent five years settling his estate, most of which went to pay inheritance taxes.
In 1953 McCormick met with Gregory Goodwin Pincus. Pincus had been working on developing a hormonal birth control method since 1951. McCormick agreed to fund Pincus research into oral contraception and she and Pincus persuaded Dr. John Rock to conduct human trials. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the sale of the Pill in 1957 for menstrual disorders and added contraception to its indications in 1960. McCormick had provided almost the entire $2 million it took to develop and test the oral contraceptive pill. She continued to fund birth control research through the 1960s.
While MIT was always coeducational it could only provide housing to about fifty female students. Therefore, many of the women who attended MIT had to be local residents. However, the place of women at the Institute was far from secure as Katharine Dexter told Dorothy Weeks (a physicist and mathematician who earned her master's and doctorate from MIT) that she had lived "in a cold fear that suddenly--unexpectedly--Tech might exclude women...".
In order to provide female students a permanent place at MIT, she would donate the money to found Stanley McCormick Hall, an all female dormitory that would allow MIT to house 200 female students. The ramifications of the hall are best stated by William Hecht '61, executive vice president of the Association of Alumni and Alumnae of MIT when he said, "the visible presence of women at MIT helped open up the science and engineering professions to a large part of the population that before had been excluded. It demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that at MIT men and women are equal."
Following her death in 1967, aged 92, her will provided $5 million to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, which funded the Katharine Dexter McCormick Library in New York City, and $1 million to the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology.
Katharine McCormick is a character in T.C. Boyle's novel Riven Rock (1998), which is mainly about her husband Stanley's mental illness.
She was inducted into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame in 2000.