Carey Thomas, as she preferred to be called later in life (she was known as Minnie to her family as a child), was born in Baltimore, Maryland on January 2, 1857. She was the daughter of James Carey Thomas and Mary Whitall Thomas. She was conceived "in full daylight," because her father, a doctor, thought this would diminish the chance of his wife miscarrying. Her family included many prominent Quakers, including her uncle and aunt Robert Pearsall Smith and Hannah Whitall Smith, and her cousins Alys Pearsall Smith (first wife of Bertrand Russell) and Mary Smith Berenson Costelloe (who married Bernard Berenson).
In 1864, when Carey Thomas was just seven years old, she was severely burned while trying to help her cook, Eliza, prepare lunch. Thomas's frock caught on fire and the young girl was engulfed in flames, which were shortly thereafter extinguished by her mother. Her recovery was long and arduous, a time during which her mother cared for her intently. Growing up, Thomas was strongly influenced by the staunch feminism of her mother and her mother's sister Hannah Whitall Smith who became a prominent preacher. Her father, a physician, was not completely happy with feminist ideas, but his daughter was fiercely independent and he supported her in all of her independent endeavors. Though both her parents were orthodox members of the Society of Friends, Thomas' education and European travel led her to question those beliefs and develop a love for music and theater, both of which were forbidden to Orthodox Quakers. This religious questioning led to friction with her mother.
Thomas initially attended a Society of Friends school in Baltimore. Minnie had a strong childhood relationship with her cousin, Frank Smith, Hannah Smith's son. The two were almost inseparable until Frank's sudden death in 1872. His death deeply depressed Minnie, and moved her parents' to send her to the Howland Institute. Minnie transferred with her cousin Bessie to the Howland Institute in October 1872, a Quaker boarding school near Ithaca, New York. While at Howland, Minnie decided to dress as a man in the school's opera which made her mother very upset, for it was "repugnant to her taste." It was here that Miss Slocum, a teacher at Howland, influenced her to study education, rather than medicine. Thomas hoped to enter Cornell University to pursue further education, but met with her father's objections. After a great deal of pleading from both Thomas and her mother, her father relented.
Thomas went to Sage College, a women's school at Cornell University, in September of 1875, where she formally changed to Carey from Minnie. She graduated from Cornell University in 1877. Cornell offered her both the position of professor of literature and dean of Sage College, but she did not consider either. She did graduate work in Greek at Johns Hopkins University but withdrew because she was not permitted to attend classes. She did further graduate work at the University of Leipzig, but that university did not grant degrees to women. She then went to the University of Zurich and earned a Ph.D. in linguistics, summa cum laude, in 1882 for her dissertation which was a philological analysis of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This dissertation continued to be highly regarded by specialists eighty years later. She was the first woman and the first foreigner to receive such a doctorate from the university. She then spent some time in Paris, where she attended lectures by Gaston Paris at the Sorbonne, and then went back home to the United States. Thomas did not pursue her degree out of love for her academic work, but rather out of a desire to show Americans that women had the same intellectual capacity as men.
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