Jennie McGraw, born in Dryden, New York, in 1840, was to become one of the most significant benefactors of Cornell University. Her father, John McGraw, was an industrialist and self-made millionaire. Determined that his daughter should receive the advantage of a classical education, McGraw decided that the best opportunity for her was to take a Grand Tour of Europe. Jennie made three major trips to Europe, beginning in 1859. Jennie and John McGraw shared a commitment to the establishment of a world-class university library. While John McGraw had a deep reverence for the classical education he had never been privileged to receive, Jennie had benefited from an excellent education and knew that a university could only produce fine scholars if it had a rich and diverse library.
In 1878, she set out on her final trip to Europe in hopes of bettering her cultural knowledge and improving her health, which had never been robust. Although she and her family had hoped that the more temperate European climate might relieve the effects of her tuberculosis, her health gradually worsened. In Venice, she renewed her acquaintanceship with Willard Fiske and married him in August, 1880, in Berlin. She was barely able to return to Ithaca before succumbing to her illness in September, 1881. Jennie McGraw Fiske is buried in the Memorial Antechapel in Cornell's Sage Chapel, alongside her husband.