Dr. Edith Farnsworth

Edith Farnsworth was born in Chicago to a well-established family in the lumber and paper business. Due to both her privileged socio-economic status and her bright mind, she strived to become very well-educated. She studied literature, composition, and zoology at the University of Chicago and violin at the American Conservatory of Music. Due to her talent on the violin, she studied further in Italy for several years during the 1920s with concert violinist and composer Mario Corti. She became fluent in Italian and French and spoke some German.

She showed interest and competency in the sciences as well as arts. While she contemplated becoming a concert violinist, she eventually decided to pursue a career in medicine. At a time where Northwestern Medical School only allowed four women per class, she earned her MD in 1938. During World War II, Dr. Farnsworth rose through the traditionally male field to become an associate professor of medicine at Passavant Hospital, specializing in Nephrology (the study of the kidney) and dividing her time between private practice as a physician and research for the university.

It was during the apex of her career that she envisioned the concept of the Edith Farnsworth House. Desiring a weekend retreat, Dr. Farnsworth commissioned Mies van der Rohe to build a country house on the acreage she purchased from Colonel McCormick. Thus began the tumultuous relationship that was the foundation of one of the most remarkable houses in Modernist canon.

Given the intensity of their relationship that turned to hatred, it has been widely speculated that Dr. Farnsworth and Mies van der Rohe were romantically involved. However, this has never been confirmed. Dr. Farnsworth’s diary, written in retrospect years later, gives no indication that there was an intimate relationship. Mies, having left his wife and children behind in Germany, was involved in several well-documented affairs during his life in the United States, including a long-term relationship with Lora Marx. Dr. Farnsworth never married, nor had children.

After selling the Edith Farnsworth House to Lord Peter Palumbo in 1971, Dr. Farnsworth spent the end of her life in a small villa in Bagno a Ripoli (near Florence, Italy). While there, she became a published translator of Italian poetry and recorded extensive memoirs. She died on December 5th, 1977 after a brief illness, and her ashes were returned for burial in Graceland Cemetery in Chicago.