There is a lot of life left to live after one’s children are out of the house.

It might seem an obvious statement, but it was a fact that the university system of America had not remotely considered until the arrival of Mary Ingraham Bunting in 1955. Before Bunting, the assumption was that not much could be expected of women academically, because once married they would have children, and once they had children, they were locked into the role of mother, never to return.

There was a culture of “unexpectation” centered around women university students – the academic resources offered them were scantier than those showered upon their male counterparts, and their academic requirements were often lighter because colleges honestly didn’t feel that they would do anything with their degrees once they had them, and therefore that rigorous requirements were unnecessary. When Mary Bunting undertook the role of Dean at Douglass College in 1955, and later that of President of Radcliffe College in 1960, she saw that the reason women didn’t follow up on their early education was largely due to the way American universities were structured, and that simple adjustments, once made, would allow women to thrive. mary bunting

She launched a series of administrative experiments to show what might be done once institutional inertia was overcome. Universities tended to have major obstacles in the way of any students attempting to attend part-time during the day, which made it difficult for current mothers to continue their education. So, Bunting instituted a part-time attendance experiment at Douglass and watched as the enrollment numbers leapt with women responding to the call of an educational system that actually seemed to pay attention to the realities of their lives.

Universities also didn’t particularly believe in the utility of non-credit adult education or research, and so a whole army of brilliant women PhDs and Masters students who had raised their children remained at home, unable to pick up where they had left off academically. And again, Bunting created a test program, now known as the Bunting Institute, that invited women of any age to apply for non-credit research grants, and was launched to national celebrity on the strength of the response. Simple adjustments, obvious to us now, but revolutionary in their time, which unshackled a segment of the population that had all but given up on its own potentialities.

But the person who taught two colleges, and through them, a nation, how to administer a college that didn’t just cater to the academic requirements of the single young male, would never have been a university administrator at all had it not been for the death of her husband in 1954 from brain cancer. Up to that moment, Mary Bunting had been living a life of idyllic satisfaction, nestled into a rural New Jersey town with her husband, sharing the work of a small farm while carrying out her own microbiological research, teaching the occasional class at Yale, and raising a string of independent and competent children. She was among the first scientists to look into the issue of microbial heredity and mutation, and was asked by future Nobel Prize winner Salvador Luria to present her findings about the mutation rates of Serratia marcescens at Cold Spring Harbor in 1946.

She had always been an enthusiastic observer of nature, and had become acquainted with her husband at college when a mutual friend pointed out that they were both avid bird watchers and as such ought to become acquainted with each other. They spent every spare moment they could finding new parts of the natural world to observe and record. They enjoyed roughing it, and could live as comfortably in a tent or an unfinished basement as a thoroughly modern Eisenhower dream home That life might have gone on forever had it not been for Henry’s health. Over the decade of their marriage, he was struck by tuberculosis, pneumonia, and finally brain cancer, each of which Mary soldiered through with a characteristic practicality and lack of sentimentality. When he died at last, she did not collapse or pause, but turned herself to the question of how she was to survive now that the chief income earner in the family was gone.

The solution came in the form of an unexpected invitation to become the Dean of Douglass College, a women’s college founded in 1918 with support from the trustees of Rutgers. At this point, Bunting had no experience as a college administrator, and in some ways that would prove her greatest strength in her early years. Unencumbered by institutional notions of what could or couldn’t be done, Bunting repeatedly found solutions to conundrums the college didn’t even know it had, and developed ways to link the college not only with older women and mothers who wanted more education, but with the larger community.

She found the hallmark focus of her career in 1958, when she was placed on a National Science Foundation committee tasked with improving the nation’s performance in science in the wake of Sputnik. The Committee was interested in finding out what prevented the nation’s strongest students from following through with a career in science, and one statistic in particular spoke volumes to Bunting: of all sixteen-to-nineteen year olds who scored in the top 10% on aptitude tests who did not then go on to college, 98% were women. Her fellow committee members noted the statistic calmly and then went about their business, but for Bunting the whole crux of the problem lay visible at once: the nation’s brightest women were overwhelmingly not attending college. Why?

Bunting saw the problem as one of unexpectation, of a society that routinely told young girls at every turn that their education was unimportant, and that their higher education was little more than a waste of time that might be more profitably spent mothering and resources that would be more usefully spent on boys. Endowments for women’s colleges were a fraction of those at men’s institutions, and she had to look no further than her next job, as President of Radcliffe, to see the evidence of it.  While Harvard men strolled about historical hallowed halls, the women of Radcliffe were squeezed into cheerless modern rooms, thrust into bunkbeds in a desperate attempt to alleviate the Radcliffe housing problem without spending any of the money that the college resolutely did not have. The Harvard undergraduate library was off limits to Radcliffe students, as were its dining halls, and the financial aid available to a Radcliffe hopeful was a fraction of that available to a Harvard lad.

Bunting set about combating the culture of unexpectation by forming Radcliffe up into houses that mirrored those of Harvard (another simple act that, oddly, nobody had yet thought of), by creating and finding funding for an Institute devoted to research for any woman wishing to continue her post-baccalaureate education, by creating search committees to go into low-income neighborhoods and find promising students to offer scholarships to, and by building Radcliffe its own library that soon drew Harvard students across the quad. On a personal level, she kept up direct connections with her students, letting everybody know that, when her porch light was on, she was available to see anybody about any concern that they might have. She pushed through closer ties with Harvard in the teeth of strong alumnae opposition, effecting at the end of her Presidency a co-residential union with Harvard in 1972 that served as the springboard to the “non-merger merger” of 1977 and the full integration of 1999.

That said, few college Presidents of the 1960s escaped their tenure completely unscathed, and 1968 came to Radcliffe as it did to most American universities. Mary Bunting agreed with many of the students’ grievances – she did not support the war in Vietnam, was in favor of greater representation for ethnic minorities both in the student body and in the administration, and was concerned about the quality and availability of student housing. As the end of the decade wore on, however, and these grievances were presented not as matters to be discussed, but rather as demands to be satisfied, Bunting worried about her effectiveness. She visited the students wherever she could, attempting to talk to them about what bothered them, but met with increasing silence.  Obscenities were publicly hurled at her even as she was working to implement programs that effected the most realizable of the student demands. Through those difficult years, she kept her presence of mind and was, if not the hero that the students wanted, the hero they needed.

When Harvard-Radcliffe co-residency was finally established in 1972 against fears of the Radcliffe Alumnae that such a merger would weaken the identity of their beloved school, Mary Bunting decided that she had accomplished what she had set out to, and retired from her position. The following decades saw her advising Princeton in its attempts to update its structure and offerings, as well as serving on the boards of several companies which had been supportive of Radcliffe during her tenure there, as well as government advisory boards which had been impressed by her year serving on the Atomic Energy Commission in 1964. In 1979 (not 1975, as her Wikipedia page would have it) she remarried and devoted her time increasingly to the declining health of her new husband and the needs of her family. Her second husband died in 1988, and to ease the minds of her family about her well-being, she moved into a retirement community in 1992.

The remaining six years of her life do not represent a happy story. Her memory began to fail and she had enough experience of Alzheimer’s in her family to recognize its signs in herself. In her letters, we see her acutely aware of what is happening to her, of a merciless and steady decline in her mind that she could do nothing about, and that would only bring pain to her family. Her body growing more frail and her mind more dim, Mary Bunting, the quintessential woman of action, who had brought bee hives and a cow with her when she moved into the Radcliffe presidential house, and had dragged the American university into the modern Age of Flexibility by pure force of will, spent her last months unable to speak and barely able to move. She died in 1998 in an apartment in the assisted living section of the Kendal Retirement Community.

Lead image courtesy Rutgers University Archive

FURTHER READING: Mary Ingraham Bunting: Her Two Lives (2005) by Elaine Yaffe is a simply wonderful book written by an author who wants to do full honor to a life fully led. Bunting’s time as researcher, amateur farmer, weekend adventurer, experimental mother, Dean, and President are all thoroughly detailed, as is the complex relationship between Harvard and Radcliffe in the 1960s, and there are few moments in the literature of scientific biography as simultaneously moving and terrifying as the chapters devoted to Bunting’s slow collapse.

And for more awesome Women in Science comics, check out the archive and my books, Illustrated Women in Science – Volume 12 and 3.