During Women’s History Month, DiversityInc is honoring a series of female innovators and history makers who are often overlooked in mainstream media coverage and history books. Check back throughout March to learn about more important figures.
Born: May 5, 1864 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Died: January 27, 1922 in New York City, New York
Known best for: A journalism investigation into how mentally ill people are treated in institutions, which led to widespread reform
Elizabeth Mary Jane Cochran, better known by her pen name Nellie Bly, was one of America’s first female investigative journalists. She became a journalist by accident when she was only 21 years old when she wrote a response to a chauvinistic article in the Pittsburgh Dispatch. The editor recognized her writing ability and hired her. She wrote under the pen name, Nellie Bly.
Cochran went on to work in Mexico as a foreign correspondent, still only 21 years old, but had to flee the country when she was threatened by the government for reporting on difficult living conditions and the imprisonment of journalists.
Cochran took on major topics, such as women’s rights, labor laws and politics in Mexico. She also investigated the mistreatment of mentally ill people in institutions by having herself voluntarily committed for a famous piece called Ten Days in a Mad-House for Joseph Pulitzer‘s newspaper the New York World.
For the story, she pretended to be insane in order to be admitted to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island in New York. Cochran experienced and recorded the terrible conditions she had been told about. Her article was eventually turned into a book and the mental institution was forced to make reforms.
But Cochran did not stop at her journalism career. She later became a world traveler with just one dress and a bag. She circumvented the world in just 72 days, using ships, trains, horses and her own two feet.
After that, she married and became an inventor and business owner. She married the owner of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company and helped him run the business. By 1901, she was the sole owner. Her husband would die soon after in 1904. Her company received a patent for the first stackable garbage can and she helped design a metal barrel to carry oil.
Cochran eventually died of pneumonia in 1922 in New York City at 57.