By Erin George
While working with the University Archives collections to research a recent exhibit (the exhibit — “Gone Into History” — ends on Friday, April 27), I learned about Professor Lillian Cohen. And her story struck me hard and showed once again how touching and maddening archival research can be.
I first “met” Professor Cohen when I read her March 5, 1946 letter to University Librarian E.W. McDiarmid, who also served as University Archivist and had asked Professor Cohen about acquiring her personal papers for University Archives at the time of her retirement.
A study of her career and her experiences as a chemist, scholar, and mentor could reveal much about the academy and the University in the early decades of the 1900s. But as Dr. Cohen noted when she retired in 1946, “…there will be just a pension with my name on the payroll to record my 44 happy years of teaching on the campus.”
I knew there was more to “record” her 44 years.
For decades, memorial statements honoring faculty who have passed away were regular features in the Minutes of the University Senate meetings. A quick search of the University Digital Conservancy brought me to the statement honoring Lillian Cohen in the November 17, 1949 minutes.
A couple of sentences stayed with me, “Miss Cohen’s whole interest in life revolved about chemistry and the teaching of this science to the students in her classes…She was a counselor and adviser to women majoring in chemistry, and her interest in students extended far beyond the classroom. She is known and loved by alumni all over the country.”
Reading the fond summary of her career at first infuriated me knowing that Professor Cohen’s voice is not a part of the University Archives collections. But she is here. Perhaps not with as much to say as her personal papers would have offered, but Lillian Cohen can be heard.
The 1900 Gopher yearbook, published the year she received her undergraduate degree from the University, includes Lillian Cohen’s Situation Wanted notice, “As general assistant in scientific lines.” The 1910 Gopher includes a section of poems, drawings, and what look to be inside jokes by and for the women on campus, and Lillian Cohen contributed a poem to the section.
Numerous Gophers note her membership as a student and as a professor in Iota Sigma Pi, the honorary women’s chemistry society; Mortar Board, an organization recognizing senior women students for outstanding scholarship, leadership and service to their colleges and universities; and Sigma Xi, an honorary society for scientists and engineers.
Later in her career, Professor Cohen was featured in faculty sections of the Gopher.
In the Department of Chemistry and at the University, Lillian Cohen was admired as a chemist, scholar, and mentor and she was “…known and loved by alumni all over the country.”
Professor Cohen passed away June 5, 1949.
A few decades later, concerns about and legal action aimed at gender equity shed light on discrimination at the University and the experiences of women on the faculty. An article in the December 1980 issue of Report, a newsletter for University faculty and staff, notes that as one part of a University sexual discrimination settlement, the first woman on the Department of Chemistry faculty had been hired. In the next issue of Report for January 1981, the following correction appears.
The correction was made, perhaps in part by a review of another University newsletter for staff and faculty, Update, which ran a story in its Fall 1975 issue entitled “Women scientists at Minnesota: long skirts and muddy paths” that featured Lillian Cohen as the “Chemistry Department’s first woman professor.”
The events and people that make up the history of the University of Minnesota often become muddled and ignored over time. Researching and curating an exhibit gave me the responsibility and honor of uncovering a few of those stories and showing that the stories may have gone into history, but they are not lost.
—Erin George is the University Archives Research Services Archivist. To learn more about the University of Minnesota Archives, please visit www.lib.umn.edu/uarchives.