Lydia Childs Eskridge
Lydia Childs Eskridge was born in 1907 and grew up in the jungles of Panama, where her father, a colonel in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was helping to build the Panama Canal. Colonel Eskridge was instrumental in the fabled “Culebra Cut” excavation project, a nine-mile furrow through the Continental Divide at the Canal’s highest point that was one of the greatest engineering feats of the day. Lydia’s memories of the horrible infectious diseases she saw in Panama drove her to pursue a career in public health.
At the height of the Great Depression, the Eskridge family was living in Baltimore, where Lydia enrolled at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health to study with the renowned parasitologist Robert Hegner, head of the Department of Medical Zoology. “She was so proud of him,” recalled Lydia’s daughter, Lydia Black. As Hegner’s student and research assistant from 1931 to 1938, Lydia studied dysentery, malaria, hookworm, and mosquitoes.
She never wrote a master’s thesis, but joined a team of Hopkins scientists who worked in New York City at the therapeutic institute at the William R. Warner Pharmaceutical Company, later known as Warner Lambert and now Pfizer. She met and married her boss, William Black, but she was tragically widowed in 1960 with two young children. It was at this critical point in her life that Lydia reinvented herself by studying accounting at Columbia University and then enrolling in business investment classes at the New School. Her successful investments in the stock market transformed her into a self-made woman.
Lydia Black remembered growing up with her brainy, unorthodox mother. “She was much more into learning than being pretty, more into advancing her mind than wearing fashionable clothes.” After having researched ape colonies in Florida with Hegner, “She could do an imitation of an ape like nobody’s business—just when you didn’t want her to!”
Lydia Eskridge never forgot the public health luminaries she had met during her years at Hopkins. She had always donated to “The School,” but her growing success led her, at age 80, to create a scholarship funded by a charitable gift annuity (she cheated the actuarial charts by living another 20 years). Lydia designated her scholarship fund for foreign students because during her own summers as a student, she had worked her way to Europe as a social hostess on the Holland America Line, then backpacked and bicycled across Europe. She wanted to repay the many foreigners who had shown a young, single woman such monumental hospitality, so she established a scholarship fund to enable foreign students to spread public health around the world.
Since Lydia Black and her mother established the Eskridge Family Student Support Fund, her daughter has delighted in meeting their scholarship’s recipients, such as a Peruvian veterinarian studying zoonotic disease who “really opened my eyes,” and the African physician who “didn’t get to eat his lunch because we were firing so many questions at him. It was fascinating listening to him talk about how they’re using cell phones to get care to the remote villages.”
Lydia Eskridge’s love for public health extended from her childhood in Panama to her scientific training at the School of Hygiene and throughout her lifetime of faithful support for the School’s research and teaching mission. Where will your love for public health take you?