Honoring Ellen Browning Scripps: The Californian Who Donated Her Wealth to San Diego

Honoring Ellen Browning Scripps: The Californian Who Donated Her Wealth to San Diego
When the La Jolla Women’s Club was founded, Scripps sought out women of literary taste who were financially unable to join and penned them the note: “Please accept membership as a present from me,” wrote Time magazine. The La Jolla Women’s Club in 1971. Library of Congress. (Public Domain)
“The most important and beautiful gift one human being can give to another is, in some way, to make life a little better to live,” Ellen Browning Scripps said in 1924. By this point in her life, she’d settled in San Diego and supported charitable causes throughout the city and area. However, Scripps’s life didn’t begin with wealth but instead with hard work and good sense.

An Early Investor

Scripps was born in London on October 18, 1836, but her father decided to move the family to the United States when she was 7. Scripps loved learning, so after finishing high school she enrolled at Knox College. She completed a course of study in 1859 and went on to teach. However, in 1873 she left her teaching career behind and joined her brothers in their newspaper ventures.

Scripps invested her savings in her brother James’s new company, the Detroit Evening News, where she also worked as a proofreader. Her brothers continued to establish newspapers, and she continued to invest in them. By all accounts a sharp businesswoman, Scripps paid close attention to her finances and spent her money wisely.

After some international travel, Scripps moved to San Diego with several members of her family, including her brother E.W., before eventually settling in nearby La Jolla. Soon, the sunny coast became home.

The Most Beloved Woman in California

“Charity begins at home,” Scripps once declared. With the death of her brother George, Scripps inherited even more wealth. As she approached the end of her life and considered how to spend the vast fortune she possessed, E.W. offered her sound advice.

“It seemed to me fitting that you should give most to those whom you loved most,” he wrote. “If, instead of an individual, you chose the whole community to be your beneficiary, that is a matter of your own sentiment, and it seemed fitting and proper.”

Scripps took this advice to heart, and in her final years, many of her gifts were to institutions and causes of personal importance to her. Scripps was very interested in funding efforts for historical preservation, partially as a result of her travels to countries such as Egypt. Her donations to the San Diego Natural History Museum enabled the institution to erect a fireproof building to protect some of the museum’s collections. She also funded archaeological digs in Egypt, which resulted in important artifacts being added to the museum.
Scripps loved reading, so she helped fund the La Jolla Memorial Library (now called the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library), which opened in 1921. In one letter to a friend, she recalled a line from English writer Walter de la Mare: “A good book is the next best thing in life to a true friend.” When a librarian asked if she’d contribute additional money for a room to display art, Scripps agreed. This room showcased works by local artists, and Scripps herself donated and loaned works to the library for others to enjoy.
Miss Ellen Scripps on the cover of Time: The Weekly News- Magazine, Feb. 22, 1926. U.S. Archive. (Public Domain)
Miss Ellen Scripps on the cover of Time: The Weekly News- Magazine, Feb. 22, 1926. U.S. Archive. (Public Domain)

Other notable donations Scripps made to educational institutions include her support of the Claremont Colleges, one of which, Scripps College, bears her name. In 1926, Time magazine featured her on the cover as a result of Scripps’s involvement in this project, crowning her the “most beloved woman in Southern California.”

“‘Miss Ellen’ has always regarded her wealth as ‘a trust for the benefit of humanity.’ Her personal expenditures are trifling,” Time declared.
She gives, has made giving an art. She runs her eye down a contribution list, matches her donation with the largest there, says “Whatever you lack, come to me.” When the La Jolla Women’s Club was founded, she sought out women of literary tastes financially unable to join, penned them notes, “Please accept membership as a present from me.”
Because of Scripps’s passion for education as a former teacher, she also contributed money to the San Diego Zoo. Through this venture, Scripps hoped to help children learn more about nature. Her donations helped build the facilities for the animals, paid the director’s salary, and built an impressive aviary.

Filling a Need

In addition to these educational efforts and others, Scripps gave to areas where she perceived a need. She helped build both the Scripps Memorial Hospital and the Scripps Metabolic Clinic. When she was 85 years old, she broke her hip making up a cot on her porch and had to stay in the hospital for a time, which inspired the additional gifts she made to the hospital.

“Miss Scripps had made a career out of giving money to worthy causes,” the San Diego Union declared. “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.”

Scripps never wanted the records of her donations to be public, so no one will ever know the full extent of her generosity. However, the city of San Diego will never forget this great benefactress’s mark on her adopted hometown.

This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.