The little lady who could ...

By Dave Schwab

Ellen Browning Scripps’ continuing legacy will be in the spotlight on Saturday when The Bishop’s School pays tribute to a musician, a volunteer and a teacher who have carried on her tradition of giving and leadership.

The school is just one of many institutions in La Jolla, greater San Diego and other communities that bear her name and continue to benefit from her sense of philanthropy 79 years after her death and 175 years after her birth on Oct. 18, 1836.

“This little woman was so far ahead of her time, she was not just a visionary — she made it happen,” said Doug Dawson, executive director of the Ellen Browning Scripps Foundation, the shepherd of her legacy.

In assessing the magnitude of Miss Scripps’ influence then — and now — Dawson asked, “Who touched more lives of San Diegans and visitors?”

Look around La Jolla to see the flourishing factors: the Woman’s Club, the La Jolla Public Library (from which the La Jolla Historical Society was founded), The Bishop’s School, La Jolla Recreation Center, Children’s Pool and Scripps Institution of Oceanography. She also offered financial aid to build many La Jolla churches and contributed to La Jolla High School.

Scripps also gave generously throughout San Diego, including donations to the Natural History Museum, the San Diego Zoo, and the Zoological Garden and Research Laboratory in Balboa Park.

Suburban Scripps Ranch in San Diego derives its name from E.W. Scripps and his half-sister Ellen who built a 2,100-acre ranch there in 1891. Today an elementary school there bears her name.

Ahead of her time

Miss Ellen, as she is still affectionately known, became wealthy in her own right and was heir to the fortune created by her half-brother, E.W. Scripps, who founded the Scripps newspaper chain, and her brother George H. Scripps.

Ellen Browning Scripps was born in London and came to America with her father, a prominent bookbinder, in 1844. After growing up on an Illinois farm, she invested what savings she had to help her brother James start The Detroit News — the first of the family’s newspaper ventures.

She retired and moved to La Jolla in 1896, where, during the last 35 years of her life, she bestowed gifts on the community. She died in 1932 at age 96, but in 2011 her philanthropic legacy still touches more than 50 organizations.

Still transforming lives

One of her greatest gifts, said Dawson, is that “she gave us the internationally famous Scripps Healthcare System that almost 90 years later transforms medicine, saves lives and is one of the largest employers in our region.”

Chris Van Gorder, president/CEO of Scripps Health, noted the seed Miss Ellen planted in 1924 when she donated the funds to establish the Scripps Metabolic Clinic (now Scripps Clinic) and Scripps Memorial Hospital on Prospect Street. Today the health system has more than 13,000 employees and 2,600 physicians.

“It’s hard to imagine San Diego without Scripps: the millions of patients we have cared for, the scientific discoveries we have developed, the physicians and other clinicians we have trained, and the thousands of people we have employed over the years,” Van Gorder wrote in an e-mail. “We believe Miss Ellen’s legacy is ours to protect and to carry forward … Our job is to meet the health care needs of our community as Miss Ellen wanted us to do with her very generous gift … We continue to do that today and will for many generations to come.”


The teacher-turned-businesswoman is also being celebrated this year at Scripps College, which was established in 1926 with her donation. Lori Bettison-Varga, president of the women’s college of the Claremont Colleges, said Scripps “really was contemporary if you look at all the different things she was involved in, how she changed the world in so many different areas.”

Shy but generous

Miss Ellen Browning Scripps’ modesty was as renowned as her generosity — though far less acknowledged. “Although the Scripps name became a symbol of great philanthropic efforts undertaken in the community during the early 20th century, the donations were never made for the sake of impressing others or for self-recognition,” said Carol Olten of La Jolla Historical Society. “Indeed, in many philanthropic efforts Miss Scripps requested to remain anonymous. The attachment of the Scripps name to buildings, institutions and educational facilities often came at the suggestion of the recipient rather than the giver.”

A case in point, noted Olten, was the dedication of the Cove park as Ellen Scripps Park in 1927. Olten said during the dedication ceremony, as she celebrated her 91st birthday, Miss Scripps noted her only regret was that her name — which she described as having one little ironical vowel buried in its six barbaric Nordic consonants —“makes a combination unfitted for the name of a thing of joy and beauty.”

The keeper of the flame for all things Scripps is Judy Harvey Sahak, director of the Ella Strong Denison Library of Scripps College. “We have 40 file cabinets full, quite a large collection, consulted frequently by researchers and family members about her life,” she said.

Links to Ellen Browning Scripps materials in that collection are at