This Place In History: Mary Martha Fletcher



At ‘This Place In History’ we celebrate Women’s History Month. Vermont Historical Society Executive Director Steve Perkins takes us to North Prospect Street in Burlington to learn about Mary Martha Fletcher.

“We’re standing in front of the home of Mary Fletcher, a remarkable woman, from Chittenden County, who did a lot of cool things. We’ve asked a special guest to come and talk to us today about Mary Fletcher. Sarah Dopp is really close to our hearts. She is a board member of the Vermont Historical Society and past president of the Chittenden County Historical Society,” said Perkins.

“Mary was, in her time, the greatest benefactress in the state of Vermont, when she endowed the hospital here in Burlington, which we now know as the UVM Medical Center,” Dopp introduced us to Fletcher.

“Her father was a merchant in Jericho and in Essex Junction. Mary was born in Jericho in 1830. He made his money, not in trading goods, but investing wisely in land deals out west. He and his wife, who was also Mary, married in 1828. They had five children, but three of them died very early when they were children.”

“I think both of the parents got a keen sense of the fact that wealth and prosperity doesn’t bring happiness, necessarily. They had experienced just the reverse. They wanted to do something good with their money and they began making philanthropic gifts just before Thaddeus died. He and his wife Mary had plans to make gifts to establish a library, which was ultimately done, but not during his lifetime. So after his death, Mary the daughter and Mary the mother got busy establishing the library downtown, which of course we call the Fletcher Free Library,” continued Dopp.

“Mary consulted with Dr. Walter Carpenter at the medical school, who was her personal physician and had been caring for the whole family since they moved to Burlington. They began to concot this idea of establishing a hospital. They saw the need for this and Mary also saw the need for establishing a training school for nurses. So she endowed that, as well.”

“Her father died worth well over $400,000, which was a huge amount money at that time. She used $200,000 of that to establish the hospital and another large sum to establish the training school for nurses. The hospital opened in January 1879 and admitted the first patient, a New York state patient interestingly enough, on that first day.”

“Mary wanted to die in her hospital. It had been established for quite some time because Mary died in 1885; she was only 55 years old. She was bundled into a sleigh in her yard by the grounds keeper and trundled up to the hospital. It’s not very far, but with a horse and sleigh, it probably took a while. She was put into bed in her room. She was carried up there and made it before she breathed her last.”

“What would Mary Fletcher think of it today? The hospital and the services it provides?” asked Perkins.

“I hope she would be thrilled and really she positioned Vermont as a healthcare leader nationwide. That’s not hyperbole. This was about the sixth or seventh public hospital organized in the United States. It was a very early nurse training school. There were very few at that time. She was well ahead of the curve. The way it’s developed today, I think her mind would be absolutely blown. She wouldn’t be able to comprehend it” answered Dopp.

“It’s thanks to her generosity and her family’s really. They were luck in finance, but not lucky in their own family circumstances. But she left something good, and also at the library, something enduring that we enjoy today.”

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