August 2013 Articles

In Memoriam


Isabel Hamilton Benham ’31, 1909–2013

Even among the many illustrious and pioneering Bryn Mawr graduates, Isabel Benham ’31 stands out. Refusing to take no as an answer again and again, she broke numerous barriers in her long career as a railroad analyst.

She was the first woman on Wall Street to study the railroad industry, the first female vice president and voting stockholder at Shearson Hammill (later Salomon Smith Barney), the first woman to be named partner in a Wall Street bond house, the first woman to be on the board of directors of a railroad, and one of the first women to hold a seat on the New York Stock Exchange—but first she had to convince Bryn Mawr to let her major in economics. 

Here, Benham’s lifelong love for thorough research, critical analysis, and exhaustive writing were forged. And her gratitude and love for Bryn Mawr never wavered. She knew seven of Bryn Mawr’s past eight presidents, beginning with M. Carey Thomas, who still lived on campus when Benham arrived during Marion Edwards Park’s presidency. President Emeritus Mary Patterson McPherson Ph.D. ’69 called her “the sort of intelligent, engaged, constructively critical, and loyal alumna friend for whom every sensible college president yearns.” 

Benham’s outsize generosity literally changed the face of the campus. With her help, the College was able to restore the Taylor Hall clock in the late 1980s, create the Benham Gateway Building at the end of the 1990s, and renovate and reinvigorate Dalton Hall, Goodhart Hall, and the Schwartz Gymnasium in the second half of the 2000s. In her retirement years, she wrote numerous essays about the campus she loved.

Beyond bricks and mortar, the Isabel Benham Fund for Faculty Research has, for more than 20 years, provided critical early career support to faculty (including now Interim President Kim Cassidy) at the start of their Bryn Mawr lives. And, Benham never passed up the opportunity to befriend a Mawrter or to mentor a young person as they too pursued ambitious and exciting lives.

Her own groundbreaking career in finance and railroads spanned more than six decades.  Moreover, she didn’t just study the industry on paper, she “rode the rails” and inspected the facilities for herself (another first—as a woman included on rail inspection trips with male analysts and rail officers in the United States). 

Benham thrived through the busts—such as the widespread railroad bankruptcies of the ’30s and ’70s—and the booms, including the mergers and conglomerates of the ’50s and ’60s. She was the first rail analyst, in the ’70s, to propose the business concept of “open access,” which came to characterize the railroad, telecommunications, pipelines, and utilities industries. 

She once said of railroads, “It’s an industry that makes you sensitive to every sector of the economy. Historically, it is a touchstone to America. It’s a romantic industry,” quickly explaining that what’s “romantic” to her was “putting together two railroads so they can become a more efficient and profitable system.” She noted, “I’m a practical railroader, a financial railroader.”

Benham’s practicality was equally matched by her determination. Judy Loomis Gould ’64, a close friend, noted that “Isabel knew even before she arrived at Bryn Mawr that she wanted to work on Wall Street—an extraordinary goal for a woman in the late 1920’s.” Yet, according to Benham, getting a job in 1931 was not much different than it is today. “Having a little bit of luck and being at the right place at the right time might be more important than ability and charm,” she once said. Still, her persistence paid off throughout her career. Benham routinely reset her colleagues’ expectations, rising from having to sign I. Hamilton Benham in order to be taken seriously to becoming one of the industry’s most respected authorities. She truly embodies the Bryn Mawr tradition of excellence and transformation by changing the world around her.

President Emeritus Nancy J. Vickers notes, “Isabel Benham was a truly inspiring woman. In the entrance to the building at Bryn Mawr that bears her name, there is a wonderful photograph of her smiling broadly and waving from a train window. An engineer’s cap sits jauntily on her perfectly coiffed head. Whenever I found myself in that lobby with a student, I could not resist recounting Isabel’s groundbreaking accomplishments. Those stories inevitably produced a smile, and a nod of recognition at a fellow independent and purposeful spirit.”


Comments on “In Memoriam”

  1. When I was Dean of the College, Pat McPherson and I, in company with the Economics Department, engaged Isabel as a visiting professor to give a course on mergers (featuring railroads, of course). The course was tough but a great success. It began, as I remember, with a discourse on dressing like business people, and the students had to meet her standard in order to attend! Just think of those Haverford guys in ties! And the women in stockings and heels! For several of those students she continued as a mentor after graduation. I think she loved doing it. Ever after she called me “My Dean”.