Mary Maples Dunn, 1931-2017


As many in the early American community learned Monday morning, Mary Maples Dunn died Sunday in North Carolina.  She was a longtime professor and dean at Bryn Mawr College who then served as president of Smith College, director of the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, president of Radcliffe, and the co-executive officer of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.

In one of the emails that started flying around Monday morning, a senior scholar in my field reported that she had been visiting with her youngest daughter and grandchild when she died.  She had whooped it up the night before with two manhattans.  I’m sure that she and they were glad she was able to make one last trip and enjoy a last visit before her death. 

Here’s a nice obituary in the Boston Globe, and another one at the Smith College website.  Her survivors include her husband of 57 years, Richard S. Dunn, her daughters Cecelia and Rebecca, her brother Fr. Fred Maples, a son-in-law, a daughter-in-law, and three grandchildren.  The family has asked that in lieu of flowers, mourners give instead to the Sophia Smith Collection and College Archives at Smith College (attention of Marissa Hoechstetter, director of donor relations and development communications) or to the American Philosophical Society’s Research Grant Program in memory of Mary Dunn, 104 South Fifth Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106.

Mary Beth Norton, the Mary Donlon Alger Professor of American History & Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow at Cornell University and President-Elect of the American Historical Association (AHA), has given me permission to share a remembrance of Mary here.  She writes:

In the early 1970s when I was just starting out as an assistant professor, Mary Maples Dunn was an important mentor for me. She was the only senior woman at the time in my field of early American history, and she took me under her capacious wing, introducing me to all the right people and showing me how to navigate in the professional world. She was one of the referees who supported my application to the Charles Warren Center and the N.E.H. for the year off that allowed me to do a considerable amount of research for the book that became Liberty’s Daughters. And I owe my current position as president-elect of the AHA in part to her, because she organized the petition campaign that in the mid-1970s put a woman on the AHA ballot for president for the first time since the 1940s. Our candidate then didn’t win, but soon the AHA nominating committees took notice and began to nominate women for president, the first elected being Natalie Davis.  (Ed note:  Davis was AHA president in 1987).

That combination of mentorship and activism was very characteristic of Mary.

I met Mary as an undergrad when she was president of Smith in the spring of 1990.  She was invited back to Bryn Mawr to have dinner and talk with a group of students who were planning to go to graduate school in our various fields.  She was not just a brilliant and accomplished woman (as well as a Bryn Mawr M.A. and Ph.D. in History), but also an incredibly warm and engaging person.  I went to Penn to work with her husband as my advisor, but she always served as an unofficial advisor to me, especially when we both found ourselves in Cambridge, Massachusetts as I finished my Ph.D. and she was at the Schlesinger.  She gave me some part-time work as well as invitations to seminars and a book club for historians that she hosted informally at the library.  She looked out for me, and gave me a lot to pay forward.

I know a lot of readers here knew Mary personally as well as were familiar with her work in early American history, women’s history, and higher education leadership.  There are a lot of us who enjoyed her mentorship and benefited from her advocacy and sage advice.  (INTELLECTUAL GENEAOLOGY/KINSHIP TRIVIA:  Mary was godmother to Tenured Radical, AKA Claire Bond Potter, who is herself the woman I call my Fairy Blogmother.  See her tribute to Mary over on her blog, just published minutes ago.)  Please feel free to share your reminiscences here.  If any of you would like to write her widower a condolence note, please contact me off-blog at my university address, and I can give you his street address.

UPDATE, SATURDAY MARCH 25, 10:20 a.m.:  Please see in the comments below information about three memorial services that are planned in at the Radcliffe Institute, Bryn Mawr, and Smith Colleges.  It’s a fitting tribute to Mary’s commitment to women’s colleges that her life be celebrated at the institutions where she spent most of her long career.

13 thoughts on “Mary Maples Dunn, 1931-2017

  1. I only met her a few times, but your account — and Mary Beth’s memories — have me crying in a hotel room. It is hard to remember just how lonely it was. I know a number of women scholars from Dunn’s generation, and they never cut anyone any slack, but were tough and smart. They made it possible for us to have many different styles of scholarship and activism. I’m glad to have known them.

    Also, thinking about Dunn with Natalie Zemon Davis, the importance of a supportive husband is evident.

    Liked by 1 person

    • All true. Think of how many more women historians we could have had as our ancestors/predecessors if they had chosen better husbands and/or their husbands had chosen to be supportive of their wives’ ambition.

      I will note for the younger women & men reading here that commuter relationships among married/partnered academics are nothing new. Mary and Richard commuted between Philadelphia and western Mass. during her presidency of Smith; Natalie Davis’s husband was a scientist in Toronto, if I’m not mistaken, while she taught at Princeton. (I’m not recommending them or endorsing them–just pointing out that this has been a thing for at least three of the most recent generations of women scholars now.)


  2. Thanks for this Historiann: it captures Mary’s contributions so well, and yes you are my Fairy Blogdaughter.

    I remember visiting Mary and Dick when I was little: they had a study with desks facing each other so that they made one huge table, and there they could lay out all the documents they were working on and discuss them, and I thought “This is the perfect way to live.” But Mary’s sense of humor was perhaps one of her outstanding qualities: I will never forget listening to her, as a graduate student, delivering a deadpan account of Cotton Mather toggling between bouts of prayer and bouts of masturbation — this was on a panel at The Berks.

    But on a serious note, when I was on the job market as a senior person, she coached me through every step of it, including one fully adminstrative and one partially administrative job interview, by helping me analyze the institutions, their needs, their fundraising histories and trajectories, and giving her advice about what the right candidate would bring to the table. Like so many in the generation(s) ahead of us, she was profoundly generous with her time and advice, and there were a couple times in my life, when discussing a transtion with my mother, that she would say: “I think you should call Mary.”

    She and Dick were my godparents because Mary was my mother’s roommate in a group house of Bryn Mawr graduate students (Mom is ABD in English from Bryn Mawr.) And it was Mary who had the idea of teaching everyone how to make a good martini, and throwing the martini-themed party where my Dad — invited by another housemate — first met my Mom. I would say my mother has had about four true female friends in her adult life, and Mary was one of them. Needless to say, yesterday’s call to her was very hard to make.

    We will all miss her so much: and on that night I would like to warn off all other senior women from dying any time soon. Please. We are not ready to let go of you yet.

    Liked by 3 people

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  4. Thanks for writing this, Historiann. It’s often said, and less often true, but in this case definitely the case, that there will not be another person to occupy the various dimensions of the persona that Mary carved out. The tonality of her voice, for one thing, is simply not duplicable. On commuting, when she was in Noho, as he called Northampton, Richard was running the old Philadelphia Center. And on alternate Fridays, he would moderate a seminar, go to the post-seminar dinner, and at the last possible moment, jump up from the table, grab a bag, and head for PHL for the red eye to Hartford, if there was such a thing. This went on for years. Per TR’s account of Mary’s ability to analyze a candidacy, she could absorb the particulars, if she didn’t already know them, and put together a spoken memorandum of strategic advice in amazingly short order. And she really did look out for people; that was something that you always just knew was true.


    • Thanks, Indyanna. I was just thinking about her very loud and joyfully boisterous CACKLE today. Sad that I’ll never hear it again, unless I cultivate my own.


  5. I have just received an email from Richard, Mary’s widower, about the three memorial services that will be held:

    ​Dear Friends,

    We have planned three celebrations of the life of Mary Maples Dunn as a testimony to the wideness of her circle.
    Each celebration will be at a college she loved. Everyone is welcome at any or all of these events.

    Radcliffe ​ ​I​nstitute: Saturday April 8th, 4 PM- Knafel Gym, 10 Garden St. Cambridge MA in the Radcliffe Yard.
    Light refreshments will follow.

    Bryn Mawr College: Saturday May 20th, 11 AM- Wyndham Alumnae House, 235 N. Merion Ave. Bryn Mawr Pa.
    Lunch will follow. (Please let one of us know if you plan to attend the lunch)

    Smith College: Sunday May 28th, 2 PM- Helen Hills Hills Chapel, 123 Elms St. Northampton Ma.
    A reception will follow at the Smith College Conference Center.

    In lieu of flowers, ​ ​ should you wish to make a donation, ​the family suggests either:

    The Sophia Smith Collection and College Archives at Smith College which supports research in the history of women,
    23 Elm St. Northampton MA, 01063;
    ​ or
    The Mary Maples and Richard S. Dunn Fund at the American Philosophical Society, which supports academic travel grants,
    104 S. 5th St. Philadelphia PA 19106.


  6. I am so pleased to have found a place to share my memories of Mrs. Dunn.

    I have many stories, but this is my favorite: One of the rites of May Day at Bryn Mawr, along with the white dresses and the maypole is a special assembly for seniors. This is when the prizes are given out. Much to my astonishment, my name was called that morning, as Mrs. Dunn had recommended me for the Elizabeth Duane Gillespie prize for “advanced work in American history for an essay written in connection with that work.” You have to understand—I was not generally considered to be a member of the prize winning crowd. In fact, many of the greetings and congratulations I received that day were tinged with bewilderment. Lynn? Maybe a field hockey prize, but not an academic one! But —with her encouragement I had done some interesting original research for my senior paper and she thought it was good. She made me feel— at age 21— that I was an historian. It was a real gift, and in fact I did go on to work in the field, first in historic preservation and later as the director of a history museum in Alexandria, Virginia.

    Lynn Rozental, BMC ’79


    • Thanks for commenting here Lynn & sharing your memories, especially as they propelled you into historical work yourself.

      (I am a fellow winner of the Gillespie Prize–class of 1990!)


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