Katharine Bement Davis' Class of 1892 portrait is among those of famous alumnae featured in Vassar's Web Home Pages.(It is a sepia version of the photo on KBD Chapter 2 that was made available through courtesy of Special Collections, Vassar College Libraries, Poughkeepsie, N.Y.)
By THOMAS C. McCARTHY*
Her decade teaching Dunkirk public high schoolers and taking individual college courses whenever she could, earned Davis “advanced placement” at Vassar. While she entered as a junior year student, Katharine was immediately the senior member of the student body. She was a 30-year-old high school science teacher who had worked her way into college. She looked the part. Davis was not into wearing or discussing the latest fashions, which were beyond her budget anyway. Indeed, she made all her own clothes throughout her teaching, college and university years, and even afterwards until “I was able to earn enough money to hire it done.”
Rather than clothing fashions, what captured her interest were matters of science. Since her Rochester Academy days, she had been fascinated with chemistry. At Vassar, she made nutritional chemistry her major. To defray her campus living expenses, she lodged in the college’s astronomical observatory and assisted in its work. Conscientious about her observatory duty, she usually joined her sister students’ evening get-togethers only on nights of poor visibility. She became known as their “cloudy-night friend.”
When she did socialize, Katharine entered into the spirit of the given occasion “with zest and humor,” recalled a former classmate. “A college dance never found her without that article which [was] so rare and so much appreciated at Vassar -- a man.” Auction bridge, cooking, reciting spontaneous doggerel and writing light verse for friends were favorite diversions when she stole time from her heavy course load or the telescope.
Vassar was founded in 1861 (the year after Katharine’s birth), arguably the country's first all-woman full four-year college from inception. By the time Davis entered in 1890, the college was an established center of progressive education for women. A major preoccupation on campus, among faculty and students alike, was the so-called "social reorganization.” Jacob Riis’ powerful photo expose of New York slum life, How the Other Half Lives, had just been published. Social reformer Herbert E. Mills headed up the economics department and introduced a course, Charities and Corrections. The unyielding suffragist and pacifist, Lucy M Salmon, who would play so pivotal a role in Davis’ life, taught history.
In this academic environment, Davis sought to combine her interest in science, her concern for reform and her need for employment. She found her answer in food chemistry and nutritional studies. Public health programs were opening up career opportunities for women with training in what was then variously called domestic or sanitary science. Katharine earned Phi Beta Kappa, graduated at the top of the Class of 1892, and delivered a commencement speech entitled, The Missing Term in the Food Problem.