Tales from the Archives: First Female Professor at St. Thomas

March is Women’s History Month and today is International Women’s Day. It’s a perfect time to highlight a significant figure in the history of women at the University of St. Thomas.

St. Thomas was officially an all-male school at the undergraduate level until 1977. Its full-time faculty reflected that nature and was composed wholly of priests and lay male instructors. On occasion, a woman (generally the wife of a male faculty member) would be hired to teach a specific course.

That changed when Dr. Mary Keeffe came to the College of St. Thomas in 1947 as an assistant professor of biology. Originally from Rhode Island, Keeffe knew little about the college when she heard about the job opening. When she discovered there were no women on the faculty, she was initially skeptical that she would be hired. But when she relayed her doubts to Father Vincent Flynn (president of the College of St. Thomas at the time) during her interview, it is said that he thought it over for a minute and then replied, “Why, I’m not so sure. Maybe it would be a good idea.”

Dr. Mary Keeffe with the Biology Department in 1951.

Dr. Mary Keeffe with the Biology Department, 1951

Working in a single-sex environment was not unusual for Keeffe. She was one of the first laywomen to receive a bachelor’s degree from Providence College in Rhode Island. Plus, she received her master’s degree from Columbia University and doctorate from Fordham University; both institutions were all male at the undergraduate level at that time.

Keeffe taught at St. Thomas for five years before returning to Rhode Island in 1952. For the remainder of her career, she served as a professor of biology at Rhode Island College.

To find out more about the history of the University of St. Thomas, visit the University Archives webpage.

Editor’s note: This post originally ran on the UST Libraries Blog on March 16, 2016.

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