James Harrison Steedman was the eldest of three sons born to a prominent St. Louis family in 1867. A Washington University graduate, he earned a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering in 1889. In the late 1800s, the Steedmans acquired the manufacturing company Curtis & Company, and landed important military contracts with the British and American governments during World War I. When the United States entered the war, James was one of the first St. Louisans to leave for active service. An expert on marine engines, he served as a lieutenant commander in the Navy. During his assignment, he suffered severe complications from what is now thought to have been diabetes. He was offered a transfer to shore duty, but he refused to leave his post, risking permanent disability. He was honorably discharged in 1918, and died on July 1, 1921, at the age of 54.

George Fox Steedman, the middle of the three brothers, was accomplished both academically and professionally. After graduating magna cum laude from Harvard in 1892, he received over 40 patents for inventions ranging from elevators to car brakes to shingle-sawing machines. George eventually become the president of Curtis & Company, and he supported his non-business interests, including architecture, through many philanthropic ventures. In addition to funding the Fellowship, in 1928 George endowed an architectural library, the George Fox Steedman Architectural Collection, housed at the St. Louis Public Library, which has become an invaluable resource for the city.