Humphreys Opened World of Science for Mary Baldwin Women

August 27, 2009

Dr. Mary E. Humphreys had academic credentials to spare: A bachelor’s degree from Western Maryland College and a master’s and doctorate from Duke University and grants for post-doctoral studies from the National Science Foundation, to cite just a few.

Dr. Mary E. Humphreys But the beloved Mary Baldwin professor emerita of biology, who passed away August 25 at age 98, will be remembered for how she brought compassion and personality to the study of sciences at a time when that field was still on the fringe for female scholars.

Humphreys enlightened women such as Janet Russell Steelman ’52, a retired genetic toxicology research associate and project manager for a major pharmaceutical company, that it was possible for a woman to have an intense career in the sciences. Steelman recently pledged a major gift to the renovation of Pearce Science Center in honor of her inspiring professor.

Although the college community can no longer enjoy the light of Humphreys’ physical presence, her legacy as one half of a powerful two-woman biology department from 1943 to 1968 lives in an Mary Baldwin lecture series created by friends and former students in 1992. The series has brought prominent scientists to campus to interact with students, faculty, and staff, and talk about their cutting-edge work.

During her 25-year tenure, Humphreys taught biology, botany, and genetics. (As a true demonstration of her character, her former students will attest that, although she held a PhD from Duke, she preferred being addressed as “miss” rather than “doctor”) She was a role model and mentor for her students working toward careers in the sciences. She retired more than 40 years ago, but remained a remarkable presence in the lives of students, colleagues, friends, and the college.

“I visited with her several times at her home on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and developed a deep affection and admiration for her,” said President Pamela Fox in a campus announcement about Humphreys’ death.

Humphreys participated in Mary Baldwin’s first international faculty exchange, teaching at Isabella Thoburn College in India in 1964–65. During World War II, she led the college’s student group, Victory Corps, to coordinate student volunteer efforts such as the sale of war bonds, collecting supplies, and blood donations.

“Hers was an extraordinary life, worthy of celebration and remembrance. Mary Baldwin University is fortunate that she dedicated so much of it to this college and its students,” Fox added.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. September 16 at Buckingham Presbyterian Church in Berlin, Maryland. Funeral arrangements are being handled by Burbage Funeral Home in Berlin, Maryland. You can also share your personal memories and photos of Dr. Mary Humphreys on Mary Baldwin’s Facebook site.