Our First Women Graduates

Note cards with details for the first two female students.

“Machine Shop Femininity” read a headline in the Rochester (NY) Times-Union on Sept. 10, 1935 (see below).

Two young women at the University of Rochester, the newspaper reported, “are majoring in distinctly masculine pursuits.”

According to the article, “While many college girls are just beginning to shop for fall wardrobes,” Norma Doell “has already started the academic year in faded shop clothes. Only girl ever to take the optics course, she was hard at work yesterday at the River Campus machine shop….”

“Her girlhood chum, Miss Marie E. Bessey, is majoring in mechanical engineering and is scheduled to take the same shop course later in the year.”

Four years later, both received their BS degrees, becoming the first women engineering graduates in the University’s history. In doing so, they dispelled any doubts about their prospects in a field that was even more male-dominated than it is today.

“I talked to the girl at length about a woman taking mechanical engineering,” one academic advisor recorded after interviewing Bessey. “But she seems to have her mind set pretty well on the idea.” 

Much in common

There are some striking similarities in the stories of these two pioneering women.

Both came from tightknit Rochester families.

Marie’s mother was a teacher and her father worked as an accountant for Eastman Kodak. The Besseys were a church-going family that took pride in their home library, and preferred to stay at home, amusing themselves with crossword puzzles and other games that tested their wits. “I have never allowed myself to be without a book, for I believe that through books we experience a large share of the enrichment of life,” wrote Marie, who was described as “rather fragile in appearance, but a person of clear and thoughtful purpose.” She played violin and piano, liked to swim and hike, and enjoyed dramatics.

The Doells lived in a secluded neighborhood. They had an “immense yard and woods in back,” wrote Norma, who was tall, blonde, and struggled with a slight lisp. Her childhood companions were her three older brothers and lots of pets. Later, Norma became active in Scouting, eventually achieving the Golden Eaglet award -- the highest rank of Girl Scouting from 1919 through 1939. These were stressful times for the Doells. Norma’s father, a grocer, lost his business at the start of the Great Depression. Norma helped support her family whenever she could find work.

Both students excelled in high school, showing strong aptitudes for math and mechanical-related subjects – but little enthusiasm for languages.

A shop teacher at Charlotte High School, for example, stated that Marie “had an unusual ability in that line.” Since early childhood, her mother noted, Marie had “amused herself by drafting all kinds of things” from dress patterns to various projects involving intricate designs. Marie was vice-president of her senior class.

Norma, who attended John Marshall High School, reveled in her math and mechanical drawing courses, and in extracurricular activities, especially debate – despite the lisp. She mastered intermediate algebra on her own one summer, using an outline provided by one of her teachers. “In the fall I received a real thrill when he allowed me to go into the second term of algebra and take advanced algebra with it,” she wrote. Norma, who graduated 14th in a class of 172, was prone to do “much of the work for which others receive credit,” one teacher noted. Nonetheless, “she seems to master everything she attempts, and she attempts everything.”

Above all, both women were determined to make a difference in the world, even if it meant, as one advisor cautioned, being “the one woman in the engineering course.”

They expressed that desire in remarkably similar language.

“I think the greatest thing I can learn is to make myself useful,” Norma wrote on her application to the University. “In college I hope to meet people both in person and in books and from them learn how to make my life more useful to the world,” Marie wrote.

And useful they became. 

Back to the classroom to further their careers

Marie worked at General Railway Signal after graduating. She married Earl Boardway, an Eastman Kodak architect, and raised a son and two daughters.

In 1962 she received a diploma from the New York State Vocational-Instructional Teacher Training Program, and for several years taught metal trades at Rochester’s Edison Technical High School. Later she taught at a school in Florida.

Soon after graduation, Norma married F. Dana Miller, an Eastman Kodak film engineer. She worked as a researcher in the company’s Physics Laboratory. Norma is listed as co-inventor of a Kodak “combination field-evening and color-correction photographic mask,” which received a US patent in 1945. In 1952, she reported working as a part-time researcher at the Institute of Optics for Brian O’Brien, the Institute director.

After raising two sons, she, too, returned to the classroom, earning a master’s degree in optics at the Institute in 1961. Her thesis was on “Variation in visual functions with position within the fovea,” supervised by Prof. Gordon Milne. This helped propel an academic and research career that included a six-year stint as research associate and assistant professor of optometry at Ohio State University, where she received an NIH grant for “An investigation of the Stiles-Crawford effect.”

She then served as chief of the vision section at Technology Inc. in San Antonio, TX, a government contractor working with NASA and other federal agencies. Norma’s research focused on “investigating eye hazards from nuclear weapons, visual distortion caused by astronauts’ helmets, and the feasibility of a prosthetic eye that would give the blind meaningful visual experiences,” according to an Associated Press news article in 1971. By then Norma was serving as research director and associate professor of physiological optics at the Illinois College of Optometry.

In 1969, Norma took time during a flight from Los Angeles to Columbus, Ohio, to write a letter to her alma mater updating her activities. She had just presented a paper at an OSA conference in San Diego. The paper was co-authored with her son, Doug, who worked at Technology Inc.’s Houston Lab. She was flying to Ohio to attend commencement ceremonies at Ohio State University where her other son, Richard, was to receive a pre-med degree.

She described the satisfaction of doing research and pursuing hobbies that mirrored many of the interests that propelled her into optics fresh out of high school.

Not surprising for a woman who, even in high school, seemed to “master everything she attempts, and attempts everything.”

The newspaper clipping below from 1935 illustrates the stereotypes Bessey and Doell challenged. Another newspaper story in 1939 described Bessey as a “pert blond miss” under the headline “She Mixes ‘Man-Size’ Study with Lady-Like Hobby.” The story described how Bessey was teaching knitting at a Rochester department store in addition to pursuing such “unfeminine sounding subjects” as metallurgy of steel and hydromechanics.

Newspaper clipping.

(Special thanks to Melissa Mead, the John M. & Barbara Keil University Archivist and Rochester Collections Librarian, and Nancy Porter at the Tully NY Historical Society, who provided invaluable assistance in helping us identify and gather information on our first women graduates.)