Women of Washington University: Eliza McMillan, Philanthropist

The following is a guest post from Abbie Schaefer, a student at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville completing an archives practicum at Becker Library. She will graduate in May 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in historical studies and a specialization in applied historical methods, with minors in anthropology and music performance. Her undergraduate research focused on the intellectual history of genius in the 20th-century United States. 

Eliza McMillan
Eliza McMillan. Courtesy of Washington University Archives.

Known as “one of the richest of St. Louis women,” Eliza McMillan was a philanthropist with an interest in helping those who could not help themselves.[1] She was born to George and Mary Northrup on June 23, 1845, in Ontario, Canada. She married William McMillan in 1863 at age eighteen. Together they had a daughter and two sons, one of whom, William Northrup McMillan, became a renowned hunter and explorer. He lived in Nairobi in his later years and was awarded British citizenship and knighthood for his contributions.

25 Portland Place
25 Portland Place, St. Louis. Estate of William and Eliza McMillan.

Eliza McMillan’s husband, William McMillan, was the founder of American Car and Foundry Co., a St. Louis-based company he started when the McMillans moved to the city in 1870.[2] Their residence was at 25 Portland Place, and still stands today.

Both William and Eliza McMillan were generous philanthropists, and their interests included not only medical causes but also the promotion of higher education for women. William K. Bixby, the long-time partner and advisor of William and friend of Eliza, said, “his greatest pleasure came from doing for others,…[and] the cause of the higher education of women seemed especially to appeal to him…”[3] The couple’s support of women in education is evidenced by their contributions to institutions like the Mary Institute, which was a college preparatory school for girls of high school age.[4]

McMillan Hall
McMillan Hall, the first women’s dormitory on campus. Courtesy of WU Archives.

While Bixby’s testimony above refers explicitly to William McMillan, it is clear that Eliza also was involved in many charitable causes on her own accord. She became an honorary member of the Woman’s Club of Washington University in 1911.[5] After her husband’s death, Eliza donated a further $100,000 to the Mary Institute for the construction of new buildings. She also donated $300,000 to Washington University for the construction of a women’s dormitory, the first “visible and substantial acknowledgment of women” on campus.[6] It was named McMillan Hall in honor of her late husband. In addition to McMillan Hall, Eliza bequeathed a sum upwards of $1.2 million for the construction of an Eye, Ear, Nose, and Throat hospital at the Washington University School of Medicine upon her death in 1915.[7] McMillan Hospital was built in 1930 and fully finished in 1943, and for a time was the tallest building on the medical campus.[8]

McMillan Hospital
McMillan Hospital, Washington University School of Medicine. Becker Medical Library Archives.

Eliza McMillan left behind a reputation of inexhaustible charitableness. She traveled to Pasadena, California due to declining health in late 1914 and passed away there on January 16, 1915. She left sums of money to multiple relatives, friends, and connections, and even bequeathed life incomes to more than fifty people, including her personal household staff.[1] She is interred at Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis.







[1] Historical note, from the Eliza McMillan Collection, University Archives.

[1] William & Eliza McMillan vertical file, VF04891-B142-F04891, Bernard Becker Medical Library Archives, Washington University in St. Louis.

[2] Historical note, from the Eliza McMillan Collection, University Archives, Washington University in St. Louis.

[3] “Celebrating the Women of Washington University: Eliza McMillan.” Online exhibit, University Archives, Washington University in St. Louis.

[4] ibid.

[5] Historical note, from the Eliza McMillan Collection, University Archives.

[6] ibid.

[7] William & Eliza McMillan vertical file, Bernard Becker Medical Library Archives.

[8] ibid.