The Early Years, 1917 to 1925

While traveling in Asia in 1913, Levi Barbour visited with UM alumni in Singapore, Shanghai, Beijing, Manchuria, and Tokyo. In Japan and China, he met three medical school alumnae who had established successful practices as medical missionaries in their native countries: Mary Stone (born Shi Meiyu) and Ida Kahn (born Kang Cheng), both of whom graduated in 1896, and Tomo Inouye, who graduated in 1901. Barbour was impressed by the lengths they’d taken to obtain a higher education, by their talent, and by their impact in providing some of the only medical care available in their areas. These meetings solidified and shaped his existing interest in bringing female international students to UM.

In a letter to President Hutchins, Barbour explained his intent: “The idea of the Oriental girls’ scholarship is to bring girls from the Orient, give them an Occidental education and let them take back whatever they find good and assimilate the blessings among the people from which they come.” Barbour felt that women “should have every facility for education and every right and privilege to exert their influence to the fullest extent.” He saw a need for professionally trained women in Asia and recognized the value of greater cross-cultural understanding between Asia and the United States—both significant at a historical moment when anti-Asian prejudice and immigration restrictions were increasing in the United States and when Asia was striving rapidly to modernize.

Barbour brought Kameo Sadakata and Mutsu Kikuchi to Michigan under his own care in 1914, and the Barbour Scholarship was formally established in 1917 when the Board of Regents accepted Barbour’s gift of $50,000 to endow scholarships for young women from Asia and the Middle East. Barbour further solidified the program’s financial foundation with another gift of $50,000 in year—totaling approximately $2M in 2017 dollars— and with his bequest of real estate holdings in Detroit to provide renewable income.

Early program reports note the recruitment challenges posed by women’s irregular access to academic preparation and highlight the dramatic obstacles that early scholars overcame, even though most were from privileged families: some disguised themselves as boys to obtain early education, left the segregated seclusion of purdah in India, or resisted the practice of foot binding in China. Arrival at Michigan posed its own challenges; the Michigan Daily reported on a Barbour Scholar’s travel as an event of interest to the entire campus, and transition to life in Ann Arbor could be difficult. Struggles were often but not always met with sympathy by campus officials.

Levi Barbour lived to see the scholarship begin to grow. In 1922, twenty-two young women from Japan, China, and India had received the scholarships. Just three years later, the total number had reached fifty-seven. Barbour had met many of them personally, and those who were in America at the time of his death in 1925 attended his funeral in Detroit and conducted a memorial service for him at Betsy Barbour House.