Vassar College

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews Lillian McDermott, professor emeritus of physics at the University of Washington. McDermott recounts her experiences growing up in New York City as a child of Greek immigrants. She discusses how her education at an all-female high school (Hunter) and all-female college (Vassar) supported her choice to major in physics and, subsequently, to pursue graduate studies at Columbia. McDermott describes how she created professional opportunities despite the barriers facing married women in academia and the demands of co-parenting three children. She started working at the University of Washington Physics Department as a volunteer and eventually rose to become the first woman to be appointed, and then tenured, as a professor. McDermott explains the circumstances leading to her pioneering work in physics education research and the co-evolution of the field and of the UW Physics Education Group (PEG). She describes how the Group’s collaborative, systematic research on learning and effective methods of teaching physics has shown the way towards transforming physics education — at elementary to university levels -- from manipulation of memorized formulas to a process of active inquiry. 

Interviewed by
Katherine Sopka
Interview date
Location
South Hadley, Massachusetts
Abstract

Mildred Allen was born in Massachusetts in 1894, the elder of two daughters of an MIT professor of civil engineering who had met her mother while working in New Mexico. She graduated from Vassar College in 1916 with training in mathematics and physics. Her Ph.D. in physics (1922) was granted by Clark University where she studied with A. G. Webster, but her thesis research was one at MIT. She taught at Mt. Holyoke, Wellesley and Oberlin Colleges during the 1920s and early 30s, as well as studying further at the University of Chicago and Yale. She did research at the Bartol Foundation, 1927-30, and at Harvard University, 1931-33. She then taught at Mt. Holyoke from 1933 until her retirement in 1959. Since then she has done additional research, most recently (paper published 1971) on the behavior of torsion pendulums especially during solar eclipses.