Founded in 1941, Vassar’s conservation division, an interdisciplinary graduate program, was funded by a generous gift from Dr. Helen Cordelia Putnam ’78, a pioneer in women’s and children’s health and in physical education. Professors from the botany, zoology, psychology and geology departments directed the program collaboratively, with five major goals: training graduate students in the conservation of natural resources and mental health; promoting interest in mental health and conservation among Vassar undergraduates; providing lectures pertaining these issues for the larger Vassar community; educating the public on these topics; and conducting graduate research. The Conservation Division annually accommodated 2-4 graduate fellows who focused their studies on extensive research in a specific area of conservation. Since the division’s disbandment in 1969, its history has largely fallen out of memory of Vassar faculty and students. Few if any of the current faculty members know that the Conservation Division ever existed. It is important to recover the story of this lost division in order to understand the history of conservation work at Vassar and how it connects to the work we do on campus today.
Helen Putnam was a remarkable alumna. Born on September 14, 1857 in Stockton MN, she studied at Harvard’s Sargeant School of Physical Training after her graduation from Vassar. Returning to Vassar, her interest in women’s health began with her work as a teacher of physical education from 1883–1890. She then left to study medicine at the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. One of the first female gynecologists, Putnam lobbied heavily for reform that would decrease the high childbirth mortality rate. She introduced prenatal care, helped to form public health boards, and created programs that would regulate the sanitation conditions of milk. With the help of Dr. Abraham Jacobi, the acknowledged founder of pediatrics in the United States, she founded the American Child Health Association.
Later in life, she pursued her interests in conservation and mental health, starting in 1907 with a return-to-the-soil movement in Providence, RI, where she lived. When asked to speak at various functions, she often promoted the importance of teaching children to garden. In funding the Conservation Division, Helen Putnam intended “to train women in the scientific approach to conservation of American resources as a means solving problems of community and mental well-being.”
The Conservation Division’s series of lectures, given several times a year throughout its existence, was one of its most successful endeavors. Lecturers spoke on ongoing research and socially relevant topics, such as the United States’ response to European food shortages after World War II. The several lecturers on this subject included Dr. Leonard Maynard, the founder of Cornell’s Graduate School of Nutrition and commissioner for nutrition in the Emergency Food Commission, who spoke in 1948 about the challenges facing the agricultural community in providing food at home and abroad. Other lectures covered public health topics, such as a talk by the groundbreaking pathologist and environmentalist Dr. Rene Dubos in 1953 on “The Influence of Disease on Civilization” and epidemiologist Samuel Salvin’s talk in 1956 on “Some Public Health Problems in Fungus Diseases.” Many of the lectures focused on the conservation of plants and animals, such as “Conservation of the Eagle,” a talk given by Canadian environmentalist Charles L. Broley in 1950, and horticulturalist Dr. Russell Seibert’s 1960 talk on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s introduction of plant species and their effect on horticulture.
The Conservation Division organized several daylong lecture conferences, with renowned panelists from other educational institutions. Topics of these conferences included “The Conservation of Human Resources”, “The Conservation of Natural Resources” and “Public Policy on Conservation Matters.” Students of the natural sciences were joined by members of the larger community at these conferences.
Many of the undergraduate students who attended these lectures were inspired to pursue conservation further, and the division provided opportunities for them to study conservation in conservation courses in the zoology and plant science departments. In 1952, Professor John George, an ornithologist in the zoology department, established an interdepartmental introductory course on conservation. Through the years other professors organized different versions of this course, including a curriculum planned and taught by famous ecologist and ecological historian Robert McIntosh in the late 1950s.
Writing papers on such subjects as “Conservation of Native Plants”, “Relations of Soils and Plants in the Conservation and Improvement of Human Food Supply” and “Nutrition from the Ground Up,” undergraduates studying zoology and plant science had the option to declare an independent major in conservation, an innovation that wasn’t applied to the larger Vassar curriculum until the 1970s. Undergraduates also got involved in professional research.
Up until her retirement in 1948, botany professor Edith Roberts worked with undergraduates in her groundbreaking research on plant associations and propagation in the Ecological Laboratory, established with the help of undergraduates in the 1920s.
Over time, the Conservation Division attracted fewer graduate applicants due to several factors. Other graduate programs offered competitively larger stipends for graduate fellows, and many newly graduated science students started working immediately after college without going on for the master’s degree. The division apdapted, planning for fewer graduate students per year but offering those students rigorous research experience working closely with their professors. The most popular fields of study were ecology, microbiology, bacteriology, and plant physiology. After receiving the master’s degree at Vassar, many of the conservation fellows went on to get the Ph.D. Several international fellows such as Helen Rigg of New Zealand and Ming-hwa Fu of Taiwan earned their master’s degree then returned to their home country to teach or do research.
Despite its many successes, the Conservation Division struggled with a disjunction between the original intentions of the program and the realities of contemporary conservation studies. Helen Putnam founded the program with the goal of studying the landscape in order to improve human mental health. The evolving research in the field of conservation focused on the preservation of biodiversity for its own sake rather than for its relation to mental health.
As the faculty members of the conservation division discussed both the original intentions of the deed and the direction in which they wanted the division to go, Putnam’s deed of gift left many of them conflicted as to how to appropriately use the funds—in particular, supporting conservation research that diverged from the original intention of the donor. The broad, interdisciplinary nature of the conservation master’s degree, ill-fitted to the needs of contemporary graduate students, was another major issue. In theory, the idea of interdisciplinary conservation work was appealing, but individual scientists needed to be trained in a specific field in order to be hirable.
These and other issues led to the Conservation Division’s dissolution in 1969. The remaining funds were allocated to the dean of faculty. Though little of its memory survives today, this division played an important role in the history of the college, and the interdisciplinary philosophy of the program reflects our current dedication to an adaptable liberal arts education. Newer interdisciplinary major departments, such as the environmental studies program, represent the conservation division’s original spirit of collaboration.
Vassar Chronicle, Volume 4, Number 9, November 27, 1947 “Maynard of Cornell Tells of Plans for Grain Conservation”
Vassar Miscellany News, Volume XXV, Number 41, 19 March 1941 “Vassar Starts Conservation Department”
Vassar Miscellany News, Volume XXV, Number 42, 9 April 1941 “Conservation Study Comes To The Fore With $475,000 Gift And Lecture Series Endowment”
Vassar Miscellany News, Volume XIII, Number 45, 27 April 1929 “Garden Conference to be Held on May 3 and 4”
Associate Alumnae/I of Vassar College File on Helen Putnam
Biology department files:
Annual Reports of the Conservation Division, 1946-60
Reports to the President from the Zoology and Plant Science Department 1946–1964
Event announcement by A.S. Warthin, 1951
Meeting Minutes of the Conservation Division with President
Blanding, 1954 (recorded by Gladys Baker)
Conservation Division Meeting Minutes from meetings in 1956–1957