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Elizabeth Milbank Anderson’s Infrastructural Changes in NYC

Whose influence shapes a city’s infrastructure? How have solutions emerged from tragedies throughout history? How did one wealthy woman touch the lives of thousands of poor children? Why does she receive so little credit? Is her story important to tell?

In 1884, 34-year-old Elizabeth Milbank Anderson inherited a massive fortune. Her dad–Jeremiah Milbank–co-founded the Borden Condensed Milk Company and built his wealth further as a railroad investor. Elizabeth was well-educated, born and raised in New York City, and married to a successful portrait artist.

Elizabeth lost her only son to diphtheria in 1886 and subsequently dedicated her life–and fortune–to ensure no one else would have to suffer this tragedy. But parents were losing their children every day in New York City. In the 1890s, the tuberculosis epidemic was rising. Children were dying of whooping cough, dysentery, measles, and diphtheria. Even with the unsophisticated science of the day, it was clear that lack of hygiene and lack of access to care were common denominators in these tragic illnesses.

In 1891, Elizabeth made a gift to a laboratory and treatment center investigating tuberculosis in Sarnac Lake, NY. Elizabeth then targeted hygiene in her home city. She built a model public bath on East 38th Street, where over 3,000 poor New Yorkers could bathe each day. When it opened its doors in 1904, it was of less than five places that NYC’s poor could bathe. There was a separate section for laundry and the building was divided by gender. Thousands of lives were improved by the very existence of this public facility, and many public baths built after 1904 were modeled after this one.

From there, Elizabeth worked with Anne Harriman Vanderbilt to found The Home Hospital for the Tubercular to provide care to children and families in 1909. Elizabeth then personally funded the building and operations for the Home for Convalescent Children in Chappaqua. Almost 8,000 children were treated at that facility over the next decade.

In 1913, Elizabeth established the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, targeting health and hygiene in the schools. The organization provided 25,000 school lunches, installed water fountains, added windows for better ventilations, and even brought medical inspectors into certain schools.

The following year, Elizabeth targeted the mental health of World War I veterans by making the largest annual gift to mental Health America’s predecessor organization. She also made sizable donations to the Henry Street Settlement and several organizations targeting orphans and displaced children.

Elizabeth was also a major proponent of education, particularly empowering women in New York City. She was an early donor to the Spence School and to the Greenwich Academy in Connecticut. She was a trustee of Barnard College which, at the time she donated, operated out of a single brownstone on Madison Avenue. Elizabeth anonymously purchased three full city blocks and built one large building, ensuring that the women’s college would always have a campus.

Philanthropists at this time commonly invested in glamorous things–monuments, museums, etc.–but Elizabeth had a different idea. Her donations were targeted, infrastructural, and often anonymous or dissociated from her name. The Milbank family name can be found throughout the city, but never attached to “Elizabeth Anderson.” Out of respect for her Baptist parents, she used only her last name in all her philanthropic endeavors.

How did Elizabeth’s experience and education inform her investments and distribution of her inheritance? How did her response to a social need create lasting infrastructural change? Is Elizabeth’s story important to tell?