Ellen Browning Scripps: On what would have been her 176th birthday, it’s time to salute La Jolla’s matriarch

Annual Miss Ellen birthday luncheon is sold-out for Saturday

The 48th annual Ellen Browning Scripps Luncheon will be held from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 20 at La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club, hosted by the La Jolla Historical Society.

The sold-out event commemorates the Oct. 18 birthday of La Jolla’s most beloved philanthropist, a Libra, who, on her 90th birthday, said her recipe for long life was “that you must treat life well and live it in the right way … so it be will be good to you.”

This year’s tribute, “Simply Delicious,” will feature guest speaker Marine Room Chef Bernard Guillas explaining his recipes for making enjoyable dining a part of treating life well. Guillas will give guests insights into the community’s eating habits and trends, such as farm to table, sustainability and “eating your colors.” The luncheon also features silent auctions and a raffle with proceeds benefiting the Historical Society’s public programs. More at

By Patricia Weber

A Jolla Resident Since 1953

Ellen Browning Scripps is a name well known in La Jolla. Hospitals, parks, clubs and institutions bare her name. We know her for her exceptional philanthropy and devotion to humanity. We know she changed La Jolla. What else do we actually know about this woman? What was her political affiliation? Did she have an English accent? Did she sing in the choir? Was the waltz her favorite dance? Did she bathe in the ocean at Casa Beach? Did she swim with the seals?

Let’s go ahead with the story. Miss Ellen was born on Oct. 18, 1836 in England. Her father was a prominent London bookbinder with a vast library of the finest English literature of the time. Ellen was 4 years old when her mother died. Her next three years were spent at a boarding school. It could have been that Ellen’s father, recognizing his daughter’s exceptional abilities at that early age, wished to give her the best start in her education.

In 1844, James M. Scripps took his six motherless children (ages 3-13) on a sailing vessel bound for America. The voyage took six weeks. They landed in Boston and proceeded to Albany, then to Buffalo via the Erie Canal, and on to Rushville, Illinois to join other family members. In Rushville, her father married Julia Osborne and Ellen gained five half-siblings. As one of the older children, Ellen had multiple responsibilities, but she did not neglect her studies.

James Scripps valued his book collection and had it with him on the voyage. It is reported that Ellen developed her love for learning by reading almost all of the volumes in her father’s vast collection. This gold mine of literature may also have helped to shape the future of her brothers James E., George and Edward, who eventually became the country’s finest journalists.

Ellen completed high school at age 17 and hoped to go on to college. She lived at home, taught elementary school for two years, lived frugally and saved enough money to attend Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., in 1856. Miss Ellen’s college entrance photograph showed a serious, round face with a small mouth, large brown eyes, dark hair and a rather prominent nose that reportedly she never liked.

Knox was a strictly a men’s college. It did not become coed until 1870. Ellen attended the Female Collegiate Department where she qualified for advanced standing and graduated 1859, the second women to receive credentials from that institution. She was one of the first women to attend college in the United States.

It is important to understand the mindset of society at the time; perhaps reminiscent the days when women were considered chattel. In the mid 1850s, it was believed by many that women would harm their minds and become ill if they did too much mental work! A laughable notion now, but that’s how it was back then. Ellen’s pursuit of education may have helped to create a precedent for women.

Following college, Miss Ellen taught school for eight more years. In August 1873, when her brother James founded the

Detroit Evening News

, Ellen joined him, invested her savings in the newspaper and became his proofreader, which demanded hard work and late hours. At night she wrote articles to be submitted when other news was scare.

Some of her articles were on subjects that needed to be heard, such as women’s suffrage. Articles like these became known as the “feature article”.

Due to the Depression, investors were hesitant, not so was this lady! In 1878, this progressive young woman joined her brothers George and James in founding

The Cleveland Pres

s. Later, her half-brother Edward asked her to help in founding other newspapers. This smart lady invested her savings and eventually the company grew into a major newspaper chain.

When incorporation of the Scripps Newspapers called for five trustees, Miss Ellen became one of them. Hard work and a keen mind for business soon made her a wealthy woman. Did her involvement in the newspaper industry help to change the woman‘s place in the business and social world?

During this time of the last two decades of the 1800s, Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison were our Presidents. What was the political trend of the country? It is difficult to believe that only men were admitted to colleges and women did not have the right to vote!

Women’s suffrage was “brewing in the kettle.” Miss Ellen made her voice heard. She spent decades fighting for women’s rights. Her photograph appeared on the cover of

Time Magazine


As years passed, exhausting work and late hours led to Edward’s ill health. A vacation in Egypt followed. They were appalled to see the desecration of the Egyptian tombs and ancient monuments. Miss Ellen was a life member of the London-based Egypt Exploration Fund. She brought an Egyptian collection of antiquities to the San Diego Natural History Museum in Balboa Park.

In 1890, Miss Ellen and Edward and moved to San Diego. While there, she fell in love with the quaint little village of La Jolla and moved here in 1896. The following year, her home was built on Prospect Street. She never wanted a car but Edward bought her one as a gift, complete with a chauffeur. Her motto was “the faster the better.”

Miss Ellen came at a time when developers and realtors had a hay day slicing up the land into thin lots. La Jolla would forever have narrow streets and parking problems. With her far-seeing vision and forethought this lady cried, “Hold it! Let’s save space for parks, clubs, libraries and schools!” Promptly, she reserved three corners in the Village for future churches to be built.

In 1900, Ellen’s younger brother George left her a large fortune. The oldest brother, James, contested the will in court. His suit failed. In 1903, Ellen founded what is now the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in honor of her late brother.

To preserve and enhance the charm of La Jolla, Miss Ellen’s generous philanthropy began in earnest. In 1909, this fine lady started The Bishop’s School. She acquired property in the Village and large land plots, such as the Torrey Pines State Reserve.

In 1912, the Women‘s Club was built on the corner of Faye and Wall Street, It was there that she gave her speeches for women’s suffrage and held classes to educate women on the voting process. Some reports state that she was shy, but that is hard to believe. It is more likely that she spoke forcefully with perfect diction and with her English accent. The 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote

finally passed in 1920.

The La Jolla Recreation Center, first called La Jolla Playground, came in 1913. What is now the Birch Aquarium came into being in 1915 along with Scripps Park. While recovering from a broken hip, Miss Ellen found the need for better healthcare, which led to the building of Scripps Memorial Hospital on Prospect Street in 1924. The adjoining Scripps Metabolic Clinic soon followed.

At age 90, Miss Ellen’s passion to help educate and elevate women brought about the opening of Scripps College for Women in 1926, now known as Scripps College, in Claremont. It is dedicated to encouraging women to perform at their highest capacity.

In 1931, Ellen’s last great gift to La Jolla was the Children’s Pool and the seawall built to create a safe beach for children at Casa Beach. Now, 80 years later, this landmark has become a place of controversy and still makes headlines in the newspapers.

Miss Ellen lived in her home on Prospect Street for 35 years until the end of her life at age 96 in 1932.

All of the above still begs the question: Do we know this amazing women any better or does this great philanthropist remain an enigma? Undoubtedly, living in La Jolla gave Miss Ellen great happiness and she gave back tenfold. The Village has had many generous benefactors and will have many more. Will there ever be another like Miss Ellen? How can we follow in her footsteps and keep La Jolla a treasured place?