Selected Highlights of Women’s History at the University of Pittsburgh

Issue Date: 
March 4, 2013


Sisters Margaret and Stella Stein are the first women to enter the Western University of Pennsylvania (now the University of Pittsburgh) as full-time sophomores.The sisters graduate in 1898, tied for first place in their class, and returned to earn their master’s degrees in 1901.


Pi Theta Nu, the first Pitt sorority forms in 1908. Women’s organizations are rare until after 1910.


Shortly after the University moves to Oakland, Pitt opens its School of Education. Women flock to the new program, with the number of women students at Pitt jumping from about 40 to more than 300 in the first year. 


Jean Hamilton Walls receives the bachelor’s  degree in physics at Pitt, the first Black woman to do so at the University. In 1938, she becomes the first Black woman to receive the PhD degree (in English) at Pitt.


Women constitute 25 percent of Pitt’s student body, with 600 female students attending.


Women’s basketball organizes, the first competitive sport for women at Pitt. 


Pitt hires its first woman faculty member, Blossom Henry.


Virginia Proctor Powell Florence is the first African American woman in the United States to complete a professional education program in librarianship. She graduates in 1923 from the Carnegie Library School, which later became part of Pitt’s School of Information Sciences. (In 2004, a plaque honoring Florence is installed in the Information Sciences Building lobby.)

The Women’s Athletic Association forms to manage intramural sports.      

Pitt’s first Dean of Women, Thyrsa Wealtheow Amos, arrives from the psychology department at the University of Kansas. 


Lantern Night, a candlelight ceremony for freshman women, begins.1924 Women’s Varsity Basketball team sweeps its home game opponents and loses only one game on the road.


Eighty-two percent of the students in the professional nursing program enlist in a unit of the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps organized by the University. Because of a wartime shortage of nurses, the federal government mandates that nursing schools receiving federal money accept Black students. In 1943, Adena Johnson Davis becomes the first African American admitted to the School of Nursing. She graduates in 1947.


Flora Diemert begins her term as the first female president of Pitt’s Student Congress (now Student Government Board). The 1950 edition of The Owl credited the 1949-50 Congress, led by Diemert, for fostering a more inclusive Congress by establishing a Foreign Students Committee and a High School Relations Committee.


Lucille B. Crozier (EDUC ’34, A&S ‘46G) becomes the first female Pitt Alumni Association president. She was also an Alumni Trustee from 1971 to 1974 and Emeritus Trustee from 1977 to 1997. 


Chancellor Wesley Posvar creates the Advisory Committee on Women’s Opportunities to address the agenda of the newly formed University Committee for Women’s Rights.


The Pitt Women’s Studies Program is founded.1973 Pitt establishes the Women’s Center to serve as an advising center to campus and community women.


The Provost’s Advisory Committee for Women’s Concerns is created.

Pitt establishes a Faculty Medical and Family Leave Policy, which, among other benefits, allows pregnant women and new mothers time off. 


Katherine Detre, Distinguished Professor of Epidemiology in Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health, begins leading a national study—involving 2,368 patients at 40 sites across the United States—to determine the best way to treat people with both Type 2 diabetes and early coronary artery disease. The study attracts funding for the largest combined grant in Pitt history, $65 million.


Jeannette South-Paul (MED ’79) is the first female chair of a Pitt medical department and the first Black female chair in the nation of a medical department at a nonhistorically Black college or university. South-Paul is the Andrew W. Mathieson Professor and chair in Pitt’s Department of Family Medicine.2002 The Pitt Board of Trustees elects Pitt Assistant Chancellor B. Jean Ferketish to serve as the new secretary of the board. She continues to serve in that position.More recently


Suzanne Broadhurst is elected vice chair of Pitt’s Board of Trustees and served in that position until 2012. She has made countless other contributions to Pitt, including her service as a member of several board committees as well as the boards of visitors of the School of Nursing and the School of Education. Broadhurst is director of corporate giving for Eat’n Park Hospitality Group. 


Wangari Muta Maathai, who earned the Master of Science degree in biology at Pitt in 1965, is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her 30-year effort to reforest her native Kenya and improve the economic status of women there, while fighting for democracy and against corruption and tribalism. Pitt conferred on Maathai an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree during an Oct. 26, 2006, ceremony in Alumni Hall. Maathai died Sept. 25, 2011, at age 71.

Under the leadership of Irene Frieze, professor of psychology and then-president of the University Senate, the Senate sponsored a plenary session on the roles of women at Pitt that led to three Senate ad hoc committees addressing women’s concerns: the Committee for the Support and Advancement of Women at Pitt (2004-06); the Committee for the Promotion of Gender Equity (2007-08), and the Committee for the Promotion of Gender Equity II (2009-10). 


The director of Pitt’s European Union Center, Alberta Sbragia, is named Jean Monnet Chair ad personam by the European Commission, which also designates Pitt’s center a European Union Center of Excellence. Sbragia, a Pitt professor of political science, is one of only two academics to be named Jean Monnet Chair ad personam in 2005. In 2006, Sbragia is named the inaugural holder of the Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg University Chair and, in 2010 vice provost for graduate studies.


Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg tells the University’s Board of Trustees that Pitt will honor Helen S. Faison—Pitt alumna, emerita trustee, and trailblazing educator—by creating the Dr. Helen S. Faison Chair in Urban Education, the first fully endowed chair in the 96-year history of Pitt’s School of Education, where Faison earned her BS, MEd, and PhD degrees in 1946, 1955, and 1975, respectively. 


Anna Quider, a Pitt Honors College student majoring in physics and astronomy, the history and philosophy of science, and religious studies, is named a Marshall Scholar for 2007. Quider is the ninth Pitt student to win a Marshall Scholarship, one of the most competitive and prestigious merit scholarships available to graduating American seniors.

Eva Tansky Blum (A&S ’70, LAW ’73) and her brother, Burton Marvin Tansky (A&S ’61), are named cochairs of the University’s $2 billion “Building Our Future Together” fundraising campaign. Blum is the senior vice president and director of community affairs for PNC Bank and president of The PNC Foundation. 

The Pitt women’s basketball team earns its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance during the 2006-07 season. The Panthers post a school-record 24 wins that season. The Pitt team later advances to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen in both 2008 and 2009.

Angela Gronenborn, the UPMC Rosalind Franklin Professor and Chair in the Pitt School of Medicine’s Department of Structural Biology, is elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences. She is a leading structural biologist and expert in nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy.

Sharon P. Smith is named president of the University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg and becomes the first woman president of a Pitt regional campus.


The lab of Yuan Chang, a professor of pathology in Pitt’s School of Medicine, and Patrick Moore, a Pitt professor of microbiology and molecular genetics, discovers that the Merkel cell polyomavirus causes an aggressive skin cancer. In 2003, she and Moore discovered a herpes virus as the cause of Kaposi’s sarcoma, the leading AIDS malignancy.

Pitt alumnus Lucile L. Adams-Campbell is elected to the Institute of Medicine. She is the associate director for minority health and health disparities research and professor of oncology at Georgetown University Medical Center’s Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center.


Eleanor Ott, a Pitt Honors College graduate, is named a Rhodes Scholarship winner. A former Pitt Chancellor’s Scholar, Ott was a 2008 Truman Scholarship winner. During her time at Pitt, Ott tutored refugees who had come to the United States seeking better lives—and spent her summers working at a refugee camp in Zambia. 


Patricia E. Beeson is elected the first female provost and senior vice chancellor of Pitt by the University’s Board of Trustees. Beeson, with her successful 27-year career as a Pitt faculty member and administrator, was recommended by Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg.


Roberta Luxbacher is the first woman to be named a Swanson School of Engineering Distinguished Alumnus, an award presented annually since 1964. Luxbacher, who also serves on the Swanson School’s Board of Visitors, received her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in 1978 and is currently the general manager of corporate planning for ExxonMobil.

Katherine Wisner, Pitt professor of psychiatry and director of Women’s Behavioral HealthCARE at the Western Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute, receives the 2011 Women in Science Award from the American Medical Women’s Association. Since 1993, the annual award honors a woman physician who has made exceptional contributions to medical science, especially in women’s health.

Lt. Gen. Patricia D. Horoho (NURS ’92G), the first nurse and first woman appointed to the position, becomes the Army’s 43rd Surgeon General in a ceremony at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall. She was nominated to the position by President Barack Obama May 10 and was later approved by the U.S. Senate. 

Nancy E. Davidson and Jeannette E. South-Paul are elected to the Institute of Medicine. Davidson is a Pitt professor of medicine, Hillman Professor of Oncology, associate vice chancellor for cancer research, and director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute and UPMC Cancer Centers. South-Paul is Pitt’s UPMC Andrew W. Mathieson Professor and chair, Department of Family Medicine.


Pitt trustee and alumnus Eva Tanksy Blum is elected vice chair of Pitt’s Board of Trustees. Blum, senior vice president and director of community affairs for PNC Bank and chair and president of The PNC Foundation, cochairs Pitt’s $2 billion Building Our Future Together capital campaign.

Jennifer R. Grandis is elected to the Institute of Medicine. She is Distinguished Professor and vice chair for research, Department of Otolaryngology, Pitt School of Medicine, and leader of the head-and-neck cancer program at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute.  

Elodie Ghedin, assistant professor in the Pitt School of Medicine’s Department of Computational and Systems Biology, is named a 2011 MacArthur Fellow. Ghedin, a parasitologist and virologist, said she will use the unrestricted award of $500,000 to expand her parasitology research and explore new avenues in the evolution of RNS viruses, such as HIV and influenza. 

Toi Derricotte, an English professor in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, is elected to the Academy of American Poets Board of Chancellors, the academy’s advisory board of distinguished poets. A renowned poet, Derricotte is the cofounder of the Cave Canem Foundation, which has been offering workshops and retreats for African American poets since 1996. 


Yuan Chang, Distinguished Professor and American Cancer Society Professor in the Pitt School of Medicine’s Department of Pathology, is elected to the National Academy of Sciences.Anna Balazs, a Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering, is named the 2013 Mines Medalist by the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology. Considered a pioneer in predicting the behavior of complex polymeric materials through theoretical modeling, Balazs is only the fifth researcher to win this prestigious award.