Lost and Found: the First Woman with a Harvard Credential

By , April 17, 2013

Linda James, circa 1935. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

It is widely recognized that the Graduate School of Education, established in 1920, was the first Harvard graduate school to enroll women. Those initial graduates in 1921, more than thirty women earning Ed.M. degrees, are considered the first female Harvard University graduates. There were, of course, female graduates of Radcliffe College beginning in the 1890s, however they were registered at Radcliffe, not Harvard.

As the Harvard School for Public Health prepares to celebrate its 100th anniversary, interesting facts in public health history are coming to light. With regard to the enrollment of women, HSPH was a pioneer. In a November 1913 Administrative Board meeting, members voted to admit and credential women with a Certificate in Public Health (C.P.H.) at the Harvard-M.I.T. School for Health Officers (now known as the Harvard School of Public Health). Although this was a certificate program as opposed to a degree program, it was in fact the first program to admit and credential women on the same basis as men.

So who was Harvard’s first credentialed woman? In 1917, Linda Frances James was the first woman to graduate from the School for Health Officers. To learn more about her, we consulted a variety of sources including the Harvard University Archives, the 1917/18 HSPH catalog, the Minnesota Historical Society, and a definitive history, Founders: Harvard School of Public Health, wherein author Jean Alonzo Curran also acknowledges James as the “first woman student.”

From these sources we have learned that James was born in 1891 in Minnesota. She earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota in 1914, and took a position as a science teacher at Monticello High School from 1914-1915 before enrolling in 1915 as a student at the Harvard-M.I.T. School for Health Officers.

While enrolled at the School for Health Officers, James also worked as a Medical Social Worker at Massachusetts General Hospital from 1916-17. She completed her C.P.H. in January 1917, and shortly after took a position as the Director of After-Care Division at the Harvard Infantile Paralysis Commission …after which point, her story becomes a bit cloudy.

We continue to pursue James’ story… more to come!

Read Part 2: Linda James’ Post-Harvard Career in Public Health.

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