Mary Ethel Pew was born in Pittsburgh on April 22, 1884. She attended Thurston Preparatory School and then studied languages at Bryn Mawr College, where she graduated with honors in 1906. She continued to take classes at Bryn Mawr even after she graduated, a move consistent with an observation made about her years later by her friend Dr. Timothy Talbot: “She had an amazing breadth of intellectual curiosity and knowledge. She surrounded herself with contemporary books. ... Her memory approached total recall.”
Throughout her life, Mary Ethel made important contributions to public health, including through her generous support of the Institute for Cancer Research at Fox Chase Cancer Center. But quiet philanthropy was not the only way she demonstrated her commitment to better medical care. She served on the front lines as a Red Cross nurse during World War II, helping and comforting patients at Philadelphia’s Lankenau Hospital.
In a 1999 interview, R. Heath Larry, a graduate of Grove City College and member of its board of trustees, said of Mary Ethel’s interest in the institution her father had helped found. “She was ... concerned that the college would maintain its frugality so that its charges would be such that ordinary people could afford to attend. She was very concerned about that, and every time it became necessary to make a slight raise in tuition, believe me, she wanted to know why.”
Mary Ethel outlived her siblings, dying in 1979 at age 95. She was vigorous throughout her long and distinguished life—volunteering to help others, joining the board of Fox Chase, and for almost three decades serving on the board of The Pew Charitable Trusts.