Jane Addams: Challenging a Nation - Early Life

"Jane Addams", 1868, Swarthmore College Collection, Public Domain.

Jane Addams was born in the small town of Cedarville, Illinois, the youngest of eight children into a prosperous family whose descent traced back to colonial New England. Her mother died when she was only two years old. When she was four, she contracted Pott’s Disease which caused a curvature of her spine and left her with a severe limp. As a child she considered herself “ugly” and was always afraid she might embarrass her father when they went out together.

Jane’s father, John Huy Addams, was a businessman with large holdings of timber, cattle, land, flour and timber mills, and a textile factory. He was also president of a large bank. John Addams also founded the Illinois Republican Party and served as an Illinois State Senator where he became a friend of Abraham Lincoln.

Jane always had dreams of doing something useful in the world. She had hoped to go to Smith College in Massachusetts and study medicine, but her father insisted she attend the nearby Rockford Female Seminary (now Rockford University) in Rockford, Illinois. Soon after she earned her college certification, her father died suddenly from appendicitis.  Jane and her siblings each inherited about $50,000 (about $1.23 million in today’s economy).

Jane moved to Philadelphia to pursue her medical degree, but after only one year she had to have a spinal operation and was enable to complete her degree.  She became very depressed and suffered a nervous breakdown. She returned to Cedarville, IL.

The following year she had another back operation that was more successful than the first.  Afterwards, she set off with family and friends to travel Europe, and it was here that she decided she didn’t have to have a medical degree in order to help people. She knew that society expected her to marry and lead the conventional life of a woman, but she was determined to have none of that.


Original Release: Jun 14, 2016

Updated Last Revision: Jun 16, 2016

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