Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr, PA
Helen Thomas Flexner (August 14, 1871 - April 6, 1956) was a writer and educator. Bertrand Russell once described her as "gentle, deaf and rather timid with very lovely red hair". She was a close friend of Lucy Donnelly with whom in 1896 she became readers in the essay work of the English department at Bryn Mawr College. They soon started a course of their own in descriptive and narrative writing, which they continued until 1903, when Helen Thomas departed to marry Dr. Simon Plezner (1863-1946). At first Carey Thomas had mistrusted their lack of advanced degrees and it took the threat of resignation to win them a secure place in the academic hierarchy.
Helen Whitall Thomas was born in Baltimore, Maryland, the daughter of James Carey Thomas (1833-1897), a physician, and Mary Whitall (1836-1888), a reformer and Quaker leader. One of ten children, Nellie, as her family called her, grew up in an often chaotic, socially prominent, upper-middle-class Quaker household. The activities and beliefs of her siblings as well as her parents had a tremendous impact on Helen Flexner’s life and frequently overshadowed her achievements. Helen's sister was M. Carey Thomas, future Dean and President of Bryn Mawr College. Her other siblings are: John Mickel Whitall Thomas (1859-1919), Henry Malcolm Thomas (1861-1925), Bond Valentine Thomas (1863-1920), James Whitall Thomas (1865-1865), Mary Grace Thomas (born 1866), Margaret C. Thomas (1869-1945), Frank Snowden Thomas (1873-1937), and Dora C. Thomas (1876-1877).
Helen Thomas is the author of the book A Quaker Childhood. Her ancestors, among the original settlers of Maryland, bankrupted themselves in 1810 by freeing some hundred slaves. Exiled from plantation life, they settled in Baltimore where they regained prosperity and aristocratic position. Helen's father played an important role in establishing The Johns Hopkins University and its Medical School, and Bryn Mawr College, of which Helen's older sister, M. Carey Thomas, became president. Helen's mother's family, the Whitalls, was characterized by women with strong feminist and religious beliefs.
Her husband was Simon Flexner, a famous medical investigator, discoverer of the Flexner vacillusand the Flexner serum,who became the creating director of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (now Rockefeller University) and eventually acknowledged leader of American medical science. She had 2 children, historian James Carey Thomas Flexner (1908-2003), who wrote An American Saga: The Story of Helen Thomas and Simon Flexner (1984), and William Welch Flexner (1904-1998). She passed away on April 6, 1956, in New York, NY.
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