Institute Archives spotlights pioneering women at MIT


A new MIT Libraries initiative aims to highlight MIT’s women faculty by acquiring, preserving, and making accessible their personal archives. The Institute Archives and Special Collections (IASC) launched the project last year with the generous support of Barbara Ostrom ’78 and Shirley Sontheimer.

The first year of the project has focused on reaching out to faculty who are ending the active phase of their careers. Four faculty members added their personal collections, comprising 234 boxes and 50 gigabytes of material. They are:

  • Nancy Hopkins, the Amgen Inc. Professor of Biology Emerita, known for making zebrafish a widely used research tool and for bringing about an investigation that resulted in the landmark 1999 report on the status of women at MIT;
     
  • Mary Potter, professor emerita in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, former chair of the MIT faculty, and member of the Committee of Women Faculty in the School of Science, whose research and teaching focused on experimental methods to study human cognition;
     
  • Mary Rowe, adjunct professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, special assistant to the president, and ombudsperson, a conflict resolution specialist whose work led to MIT having one of the nation’s first anti-harassment policies; and
     
  • Sheila Widnall ’60, SM ’61, ScD ’64, Institute Professor and professor of aeronautics and astronautics, the first woman to serve as secretary of the Air Force, and the first woman to lead an entire branch of the U.S. military.

A donation of the papers of Mildred Dresselhaus, late Institute Professor emerita of electrical engineering and computer science and physics, is also forthcoming. Dresselhaus, whose work paved the way for much of today’s carbon-based nanotechnology, was also known for promoting opportunities for women in science and engineering. Discussions with additional faculty are also underway.

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“We are honored to be stewards of these personal archives that have been given to MIT,” says Liz Andrews, project archivist. “We’re committed to preserving and making accessible these unique materials so they can be shared with the world into the future.”

Acquisitions of MIT administrative records provide additional context to the personal archives and a broader view on issues of gender equity and the challenges faced by women in academia. In the next phase of the project, archivists will continue to manage donations, prepare collections for use, and enlarge this core group by reaching out to female faculty who were tenured in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s.

Ultimately, the collections will provide not only rich resources for researchers, journalists, teachers, and students, but also, as Sontheimer says, inspiration for generations of women to come. “I’m hoping the project will encourage more women to become engaged in science, technology, and engineering,” she says.



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