The History Corner
by David Mostardi, Club Historian
Once Upon A Hillside: 25, 50, 75 and 100 years ago
Number 25 in a series of articles profiling notable Hillside Club members of the past.
Agnes Fay Morgan (1884-1968)
Arthur Ivason Morgan (1876-1966)
Club members for fourteen years (1919-32)
“Wildly unconventional.” That’s how the 1905 Hardin-Simmons College yearbook described twenty-one-year-old chemistry teacher Agnes Fay. Almost everything Agnes Fay Morgan did in her life was wildly unconventional.
Agnes was born in Peoria, Illinois, and received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry from the University of Chicago. Later at the University of Montana, she met Arthur Ivason Morgan, one of her senior chemistry students and a wounded veteran of the Spanish-American War. Unconventionally, she proceeded to marry her student in 1908. She followed him to Seattle in 1910 where she began Ph.D. studies in chemistry at the University of Washington, and then he followed her to the University of Chicago where she earned her Ph.D. in 1914. At that time, only 11% of Ph.D.s were earned by women, and fewer still in the sciences. Rarer still, she did all this as a married woman: at most schools, women faculty who got married were expected to immediately resign their positions, so that they could stay at home with the babies that were expected to follow.
Agnes Morgan was offered a position at UC Berkeley in 1915, but in nutrition, not in chemistry, and in the Home Economics Department, not the Chemistry Department. She accepted anyway, beginning a fifty-three-year association with Berkeley. Agnes was promoted to full tenured professor in 1923, and only then did she and Arthur begin a family. When Arthur Jr. was born it was a surprise to her colleagues—no one at Cal knew she was pregnant. Agnes had hidden her condition with her long laboratory smock, another strategic move at a time when children had no place in the publish-or-perish academic culture. She never stopped working after Arthur Jr.’s birth, and her mother came to live with them to care for the baby.
With no opportunity to work directly in chemistry, Agnes found a way to do chemical research in nutrition, and to inculcate her students with hard science. Very few other home economics departments required this level of scientific study. Her lab focused on the nutritional composition of foods and the biochemistry of vitamins; for example, she showed that using sulfur to dry fruit preserves vitamin C but destroys vitamin B1.
Agnes also fought a long, and losing battle, to separate home economics certifications into science, nutrition, and food on the one hand, and clothing, art, and design on the other.
There are many stories of how Agnes’s teaching was full of enthusiasm, clarity, and boundless energy, and of her relationships with her students as teacher, friend, and confidant. There are also many stories of Agnes as the imperious department-chair-for-life, of how she always thought she was right, and of how colleagues learned to instrument change by convincing Agnes that the idea had been hers all along. It’s hard to imagine a woman accomplishing all she did, amidst so much entrenched sexism, without the personality she had.
Agnes Morgan received many notable honors in her career, including the Garvan Medal of the American Chemical Society (1949); Faculty Research Lecturer (first woman), University of California (1950-51); Borden Award, American Institute of Nutrition (1954); LL.D., University of California (1959); Fellow, American Institute of Nutrition (1959); and the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Gold Medal from the San Francisco Examiner as one of the ten outstanding Bay Area Women of 1963. Morgan Hall, the campus nutrition laboratory, was built in 1953 and named for her.
At home, Agnes and Arthur respected each other’s work. For many years, Arthur was the principal of a boy’s school in San Francisco. Later, he became manager of the Sperry Flour Company, and then its vice-president. Arthur was remembered as a kind man, with a great ability to get along with people.