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Vassar Encyclopedia

An online work in progress under the direction of Vassar’s College Historian

Leila Cook Barber

Born in Chicago, Illinois, on January 4, 1903 to Courtenay Barber and his wife, Leila, Leila Cook Barber received a B.A. from Bryn Mawr and a M.A. from Radcliffe. She joined the Vassar faculty as an art instructor in 1931, and during her time at the college, she served as a member of the board […]

Violet Barbour

Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on July 5, 1884, to Thomas and Elizabeth Barbour, Violet Barbour received her B.A., M.A., and Ph.D from Cornell University. In 1914 she was appointed to the Vassar faculty as a professor of English and European history. Initially an English history scholar, Barbour changed course midway through her career and became […]

Martha Beckwith

In 1920, Martha Beckwith became the first person to hold a chair in Folklore at any college or university in the country. The Folklore Foundation, established at Vassar with an anonymous donation by the naturalist, Annie Alexander, was an unprecedented institution. With its establishment, Vassar College suddenly became a center of research in the almost […]

Marcella O’Grady Boveri

Marcella O’Grady was born on October 7, 1863, in Boston, Massachusetts, into an affluent and liberal-minded family. Her parents, Thomas and Anne O’Grady (the former, a renowned Boston architect), strongly believed in the right of women to pursue an education and were a constant source of support and encouragement to Marcella, as well as to […]

Gertrude Buck

Born on July 14, 1871, in Kalamazoo, Michigan, to Judge George M. Buck and his wife, Annie, Gertrude Buck received all her higher degrees from the University of Michigan: a B.S. in 1884, M.S. in ’95, and a Ph.D in rhetoric and composition in ’98. She joined the Vassar faculty in 1897 as an English […]

Henry Buckham

Vassar’s first English Professor, Henry Barmby Buckham, taught rhetoric, belles-lettres, and English language in the college’s first year, 1865–1866. Although his time at Vassar was brief, Buckham proved to be a challenging professor who gave many of his students a strong foundation in writing and grammar. Born in March 1827 in Hinckley, County of Leicestershire, […]

Clarence K. Chatterton

Clarence Kerr Chatterton, the creator of Vassar’s Applied Art (studio art) program, was born in Newburgh, NY, on September 19, 1880, to Charles L. Chatterton, a lawyer born of English parents, and Julia Lendrum Chatterton, the daughter of a mayor of Newburgh. Although they allowed him to study art in school, his parents did not […]

Evalyn A. Clark ’1924

Historian and professor Evalyn A. Clark was one of Vassar’s most renowned and loved teachers. Her life, which spanned the twentieth century, was devoted to probing and understanding the history within her lifetime and innovatively sharing her knowledge with generations of students who found her a challenging and devoted teacher and mentor. Vassar played an […]

Ruth Conklin

Ms. Conklin’s research focused on circulation and respiration, especially in reference to the lymphatic system. When she returned to Vassar, she became Assistant Professor of Physiology, and continued to make contributions to her field. In the summer of 1931, Ms. Conklin traveled to Copenhagen on a Vassar Faculty Fellowship to study osmotic control of animals […]

Hallie Flanagan Davis

Hallie Ferguson was born in Redfield, South Dakota, on August 27, 1890. As a young child, she and her siblings would stage dramatic productions in the family living room. Little did anyone suspect that the tiny Irish girl from the Midwest would grow up to become one of the leading forces in early 20th century […]

Carl Degler

“History,” Carl Degler wrote in 1981, “is heavily concerned with values, and just because it is concerned with values…history cannot have any breakthroughs comparable to those in physics, biology, or any other science.” That Degler viewed history as a modest subject would not surprise those who knew him; he was a modest man who often […]

George Sherman Dickinson

George Sherman Dickinson, affectionately known as “Dicky,” served as Professor of Music, Music Librarian, and Chair of the Music Department during his thirty-seven years at Vassar. Born in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1888, Dickinson went on to attend Oberlin College as an undergraduate. In 1909, he received an A.B. from Oberlin, and one year later […]

Distinguished Displaced Scholars

Following in the footsteps of his father, Henry Mitchell MacCracken, Chancellor of New York University, Henry Noble MacCracken, Vassar’s president from 1915 to 1946, worked in various ways for peaceful problem-solving and international understanding during his time at Vassar. Two seminal contributions to Vassar’s liberal arts education were two programs aiding established European scholars who […]

Joseph K. Folsom

Sociologist, economist, psychologist, anthropologist and therapist: Joseph Kirk Folsom, a member of the Vassar College faculty from 1931 until his retirement in 1959, embraced and practiced these varying and often differing fields of study. His prolific and thought-provoking writing, primarily about the family in modern society, earned him awards and honors during his long career […]

Caroline E. Furness

Caroline E. Furness ’1891

Caroline Furness was professor of astronomy and director of the observatory at Vassar for 20 years. Vassar president Henry Nobel MacCracken identified her course on variable stars as the first of its kind offered in any American college, and her book, Introduction to the Study of Variable Stars (1915), became a standard in the field. […]

William Gifford

William Wallace Gifford devoted much of his time to students who were literally no longer his. A professor of English at Vassar College for over forty years, from 1955 to 1996, he maintained a close correspondence with some graduates that  lasted even longer. Though years past graduation and advancing in literary careers of their own, many […]

Charles C. Griffin

Professor Charles Carroll Griffin passionately believed in Pan-Americanism, the expediency of having a political voice and the efficacy of higher education, sentiments that he expressed succinctly in his address at President Simpson’s 1964 inauguration. “In an age in which all positive and creative forces are working toward the creation of an Atlantic civilization that shall […]

Mary Virginia Heinlein ’1925

On June 25, 1954, Professor of Drama Mary Virginia Heinlein ’25 received a hand-written poem from her student Kuni Marcus ’54. The piece—an assignment turned in very late, perhaps—concludes thus: Professor! Do I know because I know?Or, do I know because you told me so? Heinlein began teaching at Vassar in 1942, returning to her […]

Thomas Hills

Between 1920, when he arrived at Vassar, and his retirement in 1948, professor of Geology and Chairman of the Geology Department Thomas Hills became one of the most popular professors at Vassar, known as “Uncle Tom” and renowned across campus for his teaching ability. He modernized the Geology department, expanding the physical collections in the […]

Grace Murray Hopper ’1928

Computer pioneer, mathematician and teacher Grace Murray Hopper recalled seeing her first computer, the UNIVAC “thinking machine”: “When I walked in and saw that monster, I was scared to death!” She had every right to be frightened; the machine consisted of 200 miles of wiring and 5000 tubes, stood eight feet high, was fourteen feet […]

Norris Houghton

“The arts are not for the privileged, but the many…. Their place is not on the periphery of society but at its center…. They are not just a form of recreation but are of central importance to our well-being and happiness.” So wrote Norris Houghton in a 1967 essay entitled “The Arts and Government” that […]

John Houseman

After a controversial three-month engagement with the Federal Theatre Project in 1937, which culminated in the giant success of “The Cradle Will Rock,” an avant-garde musical with a pro-Union political slant, John Houseman, the director of the musical, found himself without a job. Hallie Flanagan, the leader of the Roosevelt Administration’s Federal Theatre Project and […]

Burges Johnson

In his book Campus Versus Classroom (1946), academic innovator, long-time Manhattan publisher and—between 1915 and 1926—member of the Vassar faculty, Burges Johnson offered a mocking example of the “sounds of education machinery” and of inaccessible and detached “pedagogs”: Education is that process by which accretions to the efferent speech patterns and the contentual and potential […]

William Knapp

The college’s first professor of modern and ancient languages, William Ireland Knapp, taught at Vassar from 1865 until 1867. President John Raymond’s daughter, Cornelia Raymond ’83, recalled the impression Knapp made on Vassar students and faculty: “He was quite strikingly handsome, had a delightful personality and was. . . a brilliant linguist.” The son of the Reverend […]

Richard Krautheimer

 “I do not know what I have achieved as a teacher, if anything,” admitted Richard Krautheimer in his commencement address to the Class of 1945. “But I do know that I have enjoyed teaching…I have learned a great deal, from my blunders, and from my colleagues, and from my students.” Over 40 years later, in […]

Ernst Krenek

Born in Vienna at the dawn of the twentieth century, the composer Ernst Krenek (1900 – 1991) began his career in the musical salons of Weimar Berlin and ended it half way across the world in the recording studios of Southern California. Already composing pieces for piano before he was ten, the young Krenek caught […]

Christine Ladd-Franklin ’1869

Christine Ladd-Franklin—mathematician, logician, and psychologist—was born in Windsor Connecticut, on December 1, 1847. Her father, Eliphalet Ladd, a prominent merchant, and her mother Augusta Niles Ladd, an early feminist, both came from distinguished families. One great uncle, William Ladd, had founded, in 1828, the American Peace Society, a merger of the Christian pacifist societies of […]

Abigail Leach

In the 1870s, there were many more opportunities for women in education than there had been a decade earlier–Vassar, Smith, and Wellesley had been all been founded by 1878, and the Harvard Annex, later to become Radcliffe College, was founded in 1879. Still, the major men’s colleges of the day entertained no thoughts of educating […]

Helen Drusilla Lockwood

The editors of the Vassar Encyclopedia are very grateful to Suzanne Bordelon, the author of A Feminist Legacy: the Rhetoric and Pedagogy of Gertrude Buck for this essay on Helen Lockwood. Dr. Bordelon teaches at San Diego State University and is the advisor to the University’s interdisciplinary minor in Rhetoric and Writing Studies. Described as […]

Makemson in her office in the Observatory

Maud W. Makemson

A complicated series of choices led Maud Makemson to a unique career. Her early focus on writing and on learning languages might have prepared her to be a diplomat rather than a scientist. But early work as a teacher and journalist, in New England, the Southwest, and California led her, eventually, to earth and space […]

Dean McCaleb in her office in 1917

Ella McCaleb ’1878

Famous among friends and colleagues for her lifelong devotion to Vassar and the first person to assume the title of dean at the college, Ella McCaleb ‘78 provided unique support to both Presidents James Monroe Taylor and Henry Noble MacCracken and an indispensable link between their presidencies. Speaking at the time of her death in […]

Maria Mitchell

Maria Mitchell, one of the first professors hired for the nascent Vassar College, was sought by Matthew Vassar to lend luster to Vassar’s nine-member faculty. Mitchell (1818–1889) had already gained a world reputation in astronomy when, while “sweeping” the skies of Nantucket with a telescope in 1847, she had discovered and reported a “telescopic” comet, […]

Maria Mitchell and Women’s Rights

Best known for her astronomical research and professorship at Vassar College, Maria Mitchell did not limit her interests to academia. A pioneer in establishing women in the sciences, she devoted a great deal of time to finding ways for women everywhere to gain greater freedom and have their rights recognized in society. In 1872 Mitchell […]

The Maria Mitchell Association

The bylaws of the Maria Mitchell Association in Nantucket, Massachusetts, state that it was formed in 1902 “to purchase and preserve the birthplace of Maria Mitchell (1818–1889) as a memorial museum for scientific purposes.” Many of the twelve women on the Organization Committee had close ties to the college, including Mary W. Whitney, Mitchell’s first […]

Maria Mitchell Salary Dispute

On December 16, 1871, Maria Mitchell wrote to the artist and historian Benson Lossing, a Vassar trustee, in great distress. “I must trouble you again! I simply want you to know how things go on. Can it be possible that the Ex. Com. wish to make us uncomfortable?” To make sure he fully understood the […]

Mabel Newcomer

Mabel Newcomer taught in the Vassar economics department from 1917 to 1957. An outstanding educator, she combines her excellent teaching and faculty leadership with her activities as a professional economist. She was known as the best “tax man” of those years. Her students’ Vassar experience was vastly enriched. The daughter of one of Stanford University’s […]

Donald J. Olsen

Born in 1929 in Seattle, Washington to Iver J. Olsen and his wife, Anna, Donald J. Olsen earned his BA, MA, and Ph.D. from Yale University, completing his studies at Yale in 1954. He taught history at the University of Massachusetts and University College of Hull, England, before joining the Vassar faculty in 1955. Olsen […]

James Orton

In 1869 Orton accepted a professorship at Vassar College, and from 1869 until his death he served as chairman of the department of natural history and curator of its museum. Originally supplied to the college by Henry Augustus Ward, the Natural History Museum, was reinvigorated by Orton’s expertise, soon blossoming into an even more impressive collection of over 10,000 geological and zoological artifacts. While teaching at Vassar and directing its museum, Orton remained an important figure in scientific research and writing.

Overview of Original Faculty

In 1865, Matthew Vassar and President John H. Raymond selected nine professors to serve as Vassar College’s first faculty. Each professor became the head of one of nine departments, which ranged from Philosophy to Physiology and Hygiene. The following list details each of the nine original professors and their respective accomplishments. Alida C. Avery, born […]

Margaretta Palmer ’1887

Born in 1862, in Branford, Connecticut, Margaretta Palmer graduated from Vassar in 1887. She was a student in Maria Mitchell’s Astronomy III in the fall term of1885 and one of 10 students in the advanced class the following year. At her commencement, in 1887, she and fellow astronomer Antonia Maury were among the seven graduates […]

C. Gordon Post

“I believe that subjects such as Political Science should be presented in a controversial manner,” Professor Charles Gordon Post wrote in 1955. “That does not mean that I provide the students with the judgments, not at all. They can discuss all they wish, but they have to draw their own conclusions. I am merely a […]

Woodbridge Riley

Isaac Woodbridge Riley was born in New York City in May of 1869. His father, a Presbyterian Minister, moved the family to Buffalo in 1875. Riley attended the English school in Florence, Italy, for several years before returning to the United States to complete his bachelor’s degree at Yale.  in 1908, while working on his masteris thesis, […]

Frédérick Louis Ritter

Frédérick Louis Ritter joined the Vassar faculty as head of the School of Music in 1867, upon the departure of Edward Weibé, and under his tenure the music program grew in breadth, skill, and renown. Born in Strasburg in 1832, Ritter made his public piano debut at the age of 18. He immigrated to America […]

W.K. Rose (and The W.K. Rose Fellowship)

William Kent Rose, professor of English, joined the Vassar faculty in 1953, after teaching at Stanford, Williams, and the University of California. Born in Healdsburg, California in 1924, Rose – then William Rosenberg – grew up attending concerts and theatre performances in San Francisco with his family. While his father ran a successful department store […]

Bruno Roselli

In 1907, a twenty-year-old Italian disembarked a large ocean liner in New York City; he wore a money belt full of gold coins and, perhaps, a wide grin. Bruno Roselli spoke very good English—his mother had taught him—and he knew exactly where to go when the ship docked. Heading straight for the office of Henry […]

Lucy Maynard Salmon

Lucy Maynard Salmon was born on July 27, 1853, in Fulton, NY to George and Maria Clara Maynard Salmon. Her father was a prosperous tannery owner and her mother had been the first principal of Fulton Female Seminary. Salmon attended the Seminary’s coeducational successor, Falley Seminary. In 1872 she entered the University of Michigan, a […]

Winifred Smith

Winifred Smith was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1879 to Biblical scholar Henry Preserved Smith and his wife Anna Macneale. When she was thirteen, her father was tried and convicted of heresy by his presbytery for questioning the literal truth of the Bible. According to professor emeritus of drama Evert Sprinchorn, her father’s conviction “was […]

Alice D. Snyder

Born in 1887 in Middletown, Connecticut, to a Congregationalist minister, Peter M. Snyder, and his wife, Grace, Alice Dorothea Snyder received her A.B. and A. M. degrees in English from Vassar in 1909 and 1911 and her Ph. D. in Rhetorical Studies from the University of Michigan in 1915. While a graduate student, she taught […]

Nikander Strelsky

When Nikander Strelsky was growing up in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, he adored the American Indian stories popularized by James Fenimore Cooper. In a lengthy 1939 profile of Strelsky, the Poughkeepsie Sunday Courier described how he and his best childhood friend reenacted Cooper’s romanticized tales: The two boys played Indian war games; built wigwams, […]

Marion Tait

If C. Mildred Thompson was the most formidable Dean of Vassar College in the twentieth century, Marion Tait was surely the most beloved. Appointed to the venerable position–its title was later changed to Dean of the Faculty–in 1948, when she was only 37 years old, Miss Tait (as she was known all her life) followed […]

Sanborn Tenney

Vassar’s first professor of natural history, Sanborn Tenney, was born on January 13, 1827, in Stoddard, New Hampshire. He attended Amherst College from 1849–1853, where he was a devoted student. As the 1922 Williams Alumni Review noted, “his college room [was] turned into a museum of collections in the various fields of the subject. His holidays […]

C. Mildred Thompson in the 1903 Vassarion

C. Mildred Thompson ’1903

Clara Mildred Thompson was born in Atlanta, Georgia on November 27, 1881 to Robert Galbraith Thompson, an Irish-born hotel owner, and Alice Wood Thompson. Initially preferring to be called “Mildred,” she added the initial “C.” when she discovered there was another child named “Mildred Thompson” in her neighborhood. After attending Atlanta public schools, among them […]

Aaron Treadwell

Aaron Treadwell arrived at Vassar in 1900 as the Giraud Professor of Biology and the curator of Vassar’s Museum of Natural History. Although he stayed for thirty-eight years, he switched departments in 1914, becoming Chairman and Professor of the new Zoology department. A modernizing force on campus, he was responsible for introducing some of the […]

Henry Van Ingen

The illustrious career of Vassar’s first professor of art and art history, Henry Van Ingen, began on Vassar’s opening day and lasted for thirty years until his death. Born in Holland on November 12, 1833, Van Ingen studied at the Academy of Design at The Hague, specializing in landscape painting. After his arrival in the […]

Margaret Floy Washburn ’1891

Margaret Floy Washburn graduated from Vassar College in 1891 and joined the ranks of Mu Chapter, Phi Beta Kappa in 1898. She audited classes in Psychology at Columbia, but, unable to matriculate because she was a woman, transferred to Cornell into a credited program for the M.A. degree. Her Master’s degree was sent by E.B. […]

Henry Seely White

Henry Seely White was born May 20th, 1861 on the family farm in Cazenovia, NY. His father, Professor Aaron White, was a teacher of Mathematics and Surveying at Cazenovia Seminary, and later became the head of the Seminary. Though several generations of his family lived in Western New York, the Whites originally hailed from Connecticut, […]

Mary Watson Whitney ’1868, ’ 1872

Mary Watson Whitney, a member of Vassar’s first graduating class in 1868, was Maria Mitchell’s student in astronomy. The assistant to Maria Mitchell until she succeeded her as chair of the astronomy department and as director of the observatory, Whitney built Vassar’s research program in astronomy into one of the nation’s finest. Mary W. Whitney […]

Catherine Wolkonsky

Despite being the first of its kind in the United States, Vassar’s Russian Department had only thirty students in 1946, the year Catherine Wolkonsky joined the faculty. By the time she retired in 1961, there were 254. Under her leadership, the Russian department created a course on Advance Translation to prepare students for government work […]

Laura Johnson Wylie ’1877

Born in Milton, Pennsylvania, on Dec. 1, 1855 to William Theodore Wylie and his wife Sarah Murray Johnson Wylie, Laura Johnson Wylie spent her childhood on the move, learning from her father and caring for a growing collection of half-siblings. When she entered Vassar as a freshman she was far behind her fellow classmates, later […]