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A painting of TCU library donor Mary Couts Burnett created in 1984 by Emily Guthrie Smith
This 1984 painting of Mary Couts Burnett by Emily Guthrie Smith hangs in the library Burnett funded in 1925.

100 admiring coeds mourned her passing in 1924. Who was this woman?

Women Studies in 1924
TCU women students in 1924, from The Horned Frog yearbook.

In 1923, Mary Couts Burnett gave more than three million dollars to Texas Christian University, one of the largest gifts to a Texas institution. A native of Weatherford, Burnett married wealthy cattleman and oil baron Burk Burnett about 1892. After the death of their only child in 1917, Mary Burnett feared that her husband was trying to kill her. In response, he had her declared insane and confined to a private house in her hometown.

Library in the 1920s
The Mary Couts Burnett library as it appeared the 1920s. Burnett did not live to see the building’s completion, but was driven by the facility as it progressed during construction.

On the day that Burk Burnett died, Mary Burnett fled Weatherford and slipped back into Fort Worth. Her husband had left his entire estate to his granddaughter from his first marriage, but Mary Couts Burnett successfully sued for half of the funds. She then proceeded to will her portion of the estate to TCU. The gift came as a surprise to the university, for Burnett was Episcopalian and had no formal ties to the campus. Burnett never fully revealed her motives, but she was impressed with TCU's religious inclusivity and wanted to help Fort Worth.  

The 1925 Horned Frog yearbook was dedicated to Burnett, with this inscription: “Before her Great Adventure, she dedicated her life and fortune to the cause of liberal learning and the betterment of the youth of our great Southwest. By this devoted act she has won enduring immortality…The class of 1925 pledges to honor the memory of our benefactor by a life devoted to right thinking, noble living and unselfish service for humanity.”

At her request, a portion of the money was used to construct the library that still bears her name, which was dedicated in 1925. The rest was placed in a trust that ensured TCU's survival during the Great Depression. When Burnett died in 1924, a hundred female students from TCU attended her memorial service in recognition of a woman who refused to be held down and kept her own counsel about the distribution of her fortune.

This account was written by Rebecca Sharpless, professor of History for TCU’s AddRan College of Liberal Arts, for Women in Texas History, a project of the Ruthe Winegarten Memorial Foundation for Texas Women’s History.

An audio clip, read by Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, was created for the project, "Texas Women's History Moments," an endeavor which received the 2012 National Council on Public History Outstanding Public History Award and the American Association for State and Local History Leadership in History Award. For additional resources, visit

Tag IconHistory/library/women's history month