Harriet Lane -The Greatest First Lady You Have Never Heard Of

Harriet Lane - The Greatest First Lady You Never Heard Of!

Harriet Lane

Harriet Lane -The Greatest First Lady You Have Never Heard Of

When you think of  First Ladies who combined great popularity with a long-lasting positive impact on the USA, certain names probably come to mind. Eleanor Roosevelt. Dollley Madison. Martha Washington. Jacqueline Kennedy. But today I want you to consider another name for that list.

Harriet Lane.

You are probably asking yourself… “Who is Harriet Lane?”  After all, we have never had a president named Lane…

True enough. But when you hear about her contributions to America you will understand why I consider Harriet Lane the greatest First Lady you have never heard of.

Bright, Caring, Thoughtful

Harriet Lane was the niece of Pres. James Buchanan. He holds two interesting historical records. First, James Buchanan is generally considered to be the worst president of all time. Secondly, it is believed that he was our only homosexual president. He was a bachelor, the only president to never marry. The official story was that he never married due to his grief over the death of his fiancée, Ann Caroline Coleman. Today it is widely believed that she committed suicide. There are conflicting theories, but one of them is that his sexuality was the cause of her despair. When he became president, he asked his bright, caring, thoughtful niece, Harriet Lane, to serve as First Lady.

She was well-educated, charming and spontaneous. Many men found her irresistible. She has been described as tall, beautiful and graceful, with blonde hair and violet eyes. Harriet Lane was devoted to her uncle and put off her own marriage in order to help him. Buchanan’s disastrous administration had few bright spots. Harriet Lane proved to be the brightest. Like Frances Cleveland, another young and vivacious First Lady, she helped brighten the image of the president. (Interestingly both women had masculine nicknames. Ms. Lane was known as Hal and Ms. Cleveland was known as Frankie!)

As the country approached the Civil War, political divisions were deep and hard. Harriet Lane used great skill in arranging dinner parties in the White House, hoping to gently encourage conversation. She loved art, building a wonderful collection and often hosting artists. Her thinking on Native American Indian affairs was very progressive for the time. In her years after the White House, however, Harriet Lane built an incredible legacy of charity, compassion, and culture.

Compassion and Charity, Still Being Felt Today

Eventually, Harriet Lane did marry, happily. However, in a short period of time she suffered an unbelievable amount of tragedy. Within a span of four years, she lost her uncle, both of her sons, and her husband. It is a testament to Lane’s strength that she turned her pain into kindness. To this day, the USA benefits from her charity and compassion.

The Harriet Lane Clinic

The death of her two beloved teenage sons was an enormous tragedy. Determined to help save the lives of other children, she endowed a clinic to provide medical care for children and women. Using money she had inherited from her uncle and husband, she donated $10 million (in 2014 value) for the establishment of what is today known as the Harriet Lane clinic.

Harriet Lane Clinic

The Harriet Lane Clinic at Johns Hopkins

The clinic still serves women and children at the prestigious Johns Hopkins University Medical Center. Children in need of medical care in Baltimore can still receive first class attention at one of the world’s most prestigious hospitals, thanks to the compassion of Harriet Lane.Harriet Lane ClinicI can only wonder how many of the staff, let alone the patients, know the history of the wonderful woman who endowed not only their clinic but graduate scholarships for interns in pediatrics and nursing. The Harriet Lane Clinic famously publishes research annually on the latest advances in pediatric medicine. In her honor, it is still commonly referred to as the “Harriet Lane Handbook”

Harriet Lane Handbook

Harriet Lane Handbook

and is widely available in print and online editions. It has been trusted for generations.



Harriet Lane was a great champion of education. One of her most generous and significant endowments was the establishment of what is today St. Albans School in Washington DC. She wanted choirboys to receive a first-class education. Her endowment led to the building of the school, the establishment of the trust fund that provides scholarships even today, and the foundation of St. Albans School

Harriet Lane Gift To The Future - St. Alban's School

Harriet Lane’s Gift To The Future – St. Albans School

as one of the most prestigious independent schools in America. The list of distinguished alumni ranges from Britt Hume to Al Gore, astronaut Michael Collins to famed businessman J.W. Marriott. But it is in providing scholarships to underprivileged students that Harriet Lane’s compassion is most visible. The Lane-Johnston building Harriet Lane - St. Alban'sis dedicated to the memory of her two sons. Rather than wallow in her grief after losing her husband and sons, she devoted herself to helping other mothers’ sons. How many other boys have been given a great opportunity in life because of Harriet Lane?

National Art Gallery

Harriet Lane loved art and wanted everyone, regardless of their level of income, to have access to the great art of the world. She urged the establishment of a national museum of art to be open to the public in Washington DC. Today it is known as the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Smithsonian American Art MuseumThree years after her death in 1903, her lovingly acquired collection of art was donated to the enjoyment of the nation. Her generous donation and valuable collection encouraged other collectors to begin donating their works for the enjoyment of the public. Although few of her pieces are still on display, her spirit and  her vision for making art available to the public as a national priority is the source of great joy to endless streams of Americans who enjoy the breathtaking museum.

Harriet Lane – The Greatest First Lady You Have Never Heard Of

Well over 100 years after her death, Harriet Lane continues to make an invaluable impact on the lives of Americans. Pediatricians may not know who Harriet Lane was, but they still use her handbook. Sick children in Baltimore may not know who Harriet Lane was, but their lives are improved and sometimes saved by her generosity and compassion. Visitors to the Smithsonian American Art Museum may not know who Harriet Lane was, but they revel in the museum that grew from her vision. Perhaps it is only at St. Albans, the groundbreaking and influential private school she founded, that she herself is still well-remembered. Each year, on May 9, her legacy is remembered at the school with a celebration of flowers and gratitude.






7 thoughts on “Harriet Lane -The Greatest First Lady You Have Never Heard Of

    • Glynnis,

      Thank you so much for reading my blog. I am delighted that you enjoyed the piece about Harriet Lane. One of the great joys of my work is that I am always learning! Often times I will read a biography or a major history of an event and get fascinated by a seemingly minor character or a small circumstance within the bigger narrative. What I try to bring to my presentations as well as my blog are the small moments as well as the large. James Buchanan was a terrible president. There was nothing that Harriet Lane could do to salvage it. But I find it fascinating that while Buchanan is, rightly, forgotten by history that Harriet Lane’s compassion and vision continue to impact the lives of so many Americans well over 100 years past her down!


  1. Fascinating! Enjoyed reading about Harriet Lane. Am on my way to check out her handbook.
    Thank you for “always learning”. . . .you add to my knowledge.

    • Sandra,

      Thank you for the compliment! I often say that one of things that is most joyful about my job is the opportunity to keep learning! My research often takes me into fascinating tangents. The more I read about Harriet Lane, the more I respect her. And what a legacy she left! If you haven’t yet read it, be sure to check out my article about Frances Cleveland. She was another First Lady of remarkable impact!


  2. the Coast Guard had a 125ft long cutter named “Harriet Lane” built in the 1920’s and decommissioned and sold after WWII. I never knew the origin of her name as it was incongruous to others of the class. Thanks for the”rest of the story.”

    • Larry,

      Harriet Lane died in 1903. She had been First Lady 1856-1860. It says something about her enduring legacy that in the 1920s the Coast Guard named a cutter after her! If I am reading this correctly, The Coast Guard still has an active duty ship named for her!

      Thanks for the info! You are my “go-to guy” on all things Coast Guard!


  3. Pingback: Frances Cleveland -The First Superstar First LadySpeaking For A Change

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