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Mildred Allen papers

Identifier: MS 0502

Scope and Contents

The Mildred Allen Papers contain correspondence, published and unpublished writings, research materials, course records, financial and legal records, family papers, biographical material, memorabilia, and photographs. The correspondence represents both her personal relationships and her professional career. Of particular note are letters from her grandfather, Hiram Hadley, written between 1900-1922, describing his life in New Mexico, family news, and his work as a teacher. Also of interest are the letters written to her mother Caroline H. Allen and those from her sister, Margaret Allen Anderson, discussing family news and her studies at the New England Conservatory of Music. Many of the correspondence focus on her accomplished academic career and research, beginning with her experiences as a student at Vassar College, 1912-1916; followed by her graduate work at Clark University where she worked with renowned physicist A.G. Webster, 1916-1922; and her post-graduate studies at Yale University with physics professor W.F.G. Swann and later work under his direction with the Bartol Research Foundation, University of Delaware, 1926-1930. Further correspondence describes her teaching experiences at various institutions, including Mount Holyoke College, where her colleagues included Roswell Gray Ham, Elizabeth R. Laird, Roger D. Rusk, and Frederick A. Saunders. Finally, there are letters between Allen and Erwin J. Saxl concerning their collaborative research on torsion pendulums, 1963-1981. The research materials consist of lab reports including notes, graphs, and data measurement spanning from her graduate work to later notebooks of study on various effects on torsion pendulums. The course records primarily consist of physics exams ranging from introductory courses to advanced studies given at Mount Holyoke. The collection also includes materials relating to her childhood in Boston, her social life, readings, health and relationship with her parents. Also includes papers of her father's, C. Frank Allen, a railroad engineer and professor, 1865-1950. These papers primarily consist of professional correspondence between 1883-1955 and documents regarding the publication of his books.


  • Creation: 1865-[ongoing]

Language of Materials


Conditions Governing Access


Biographical Note

Mildred Allen was born on March 25, 1894 in Sharon, Massachusetts to C. Frank and Caroline Hadley Allen. She received a Bachelor of Arts from Vassar College in 1916, a Master of Arts in 1918 and a Ph.D. in 1922 from Clark University. She taught for brief periods at Mount Hoyoke, Wellesley, and Oberlin before she became chairman of the Physics Department of Mount Hoyoke from 1946-1952. After her retirement in 1959, Allen continued to teach at other institutions, and continued her research in collaboration with Erwin J. Saxl. Mildred Allen died on November 4, 1990 in Holyoke, Massachusetts.


41 boxes (17.1 linear ft.)


Allen, Mildred, 1894-1990; Physicist and college teacher. Mount Holyoke College faculty member, 1918-1959. Papers contain correspondence, writings, research, teaching records, financial and legal records, family papers, biographical information, memorabilia, and photographs; chiefly documents her correspondence with her grandfather, Hiram Hadley, and parents, C. Frank Allen and Caroline H. Allen, pertaining to her education, academic career, and family matters.

Summary of Correspondence, 1897-1948

Early Years 1897 - 1912

Mildred grew up in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, the daughter of a Professor of Railroad Engineering at M.I.T. Her sister, Margaret, was about a year younger, and there was also a little sister, born in 1899, who died in 1903. The collection of letters of family and friends starts with a letter dated October 24, 1897 from cousin Carrie; Mildred's first letter is dated October 19, 1900 when she was about six and a half years old. Her letters describe family outings, visits from relatives, shopping expeditions, concerts like the Boston Symphony, Sunday School and church, sometimes a "giddy" trip like one to Revere Beach (August 16, 1908). The family usually summered at the shore although in 1911 all four went abroad, and one summer they visited Grandfather Hadley in New Mexico.

Both girls studied music (Mildred studied the piano) and by their high school years were called upon to perform at fairs and socials. Mildred chose carpentry in school rather than cooking. She had a camera and did her own developing and printing of the photographs which she took. Both hobbies readily provided Christmas gifts, which the girls usually made themselves. There was sewing and embroidery, dancing school, skating. Mildred liked school. She was a great reader; her favorite books, she wrote, were read many times (May 15, 1910).

Although the correspondence includes letters to and from relatives and friends, Mildred's chief correspondent was her grandfather, Hiram Hadley, former teacher and president of the College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts at Las Cruces, New Mexico, and who was known as the father of education in the State (Nov. 28, 1915). They had a formal signed contract which started in 1905 agreeing to write to each other on a regular basis. His letters describe life in New Mexico - his educational interests, his home and farm where he grew melons, pears and other fruits. He liked to send Mildred questions and puzzles for her to figure out. One of his pet subjects was the importance of good writing and he was a stern taskmaster in reviewing her grammar, style and punctuation. Mildred's first letter was addressed to him (Oct. 19, 1900).

The letters from this period provide a nice contrast between the life of a girl growing up in a well-to-do Boston suburb and that of her grandfather living in the Southwest near the Mexican border.

Vassar College 1912 - 1916

The letters from this period begin on September 19, 1912 and continue until May 28, 1916. Twenty-five letters dated during Mildred's first nine days at Vassar (Sept. 18-29) attest to the extent of this correspondence. Although many of the letters are written by Mildred, they also include those of all the immediate family, relatives, friends from high school and from Vassar, high school teachers; some of the letters are in French. The contract with her grandfather continued; indeed she wrote (Feb. 21, 1915) that she never wished to give it up. The family was close and both parents wanted to know all about Mildred's life at college. Her mother frequently sent lists of very detailed questions which Mildred was to answer. She was especially concerned with Mildred's clothes, her laundry and her health. Fear of colds seemed always present and Mrs. Allen liked to send on information about one of her favorite remedies, like ginger plaster.

Margaret entered the New England Conservatory of Music at the same time that Mildred went off to Vassar. Her letters are of special interest since they give fine detail about the life of a music student - her courses and lessons, recitals, Conservatory faculty members, teaching violin to her own pupils, the rigors of commuting - as well as her involvement with the church and the cultural life of Boston. Helen McAuslan (Mount Holyoke '17) was a friend of Margaret and there are a number of references to her during this period.

Mildred from the very beginning showed great enthusiasm for her academic work. Her major interests were physics and mathematics but she also enjoyed English writing, German and psychology. She had an excellent record - all A with the exception of one sophomore course - and she was one of seven to be Junior Phi Bete (she wore her key under her dress April 18, 1915). She was a good organizer and kept careful record of how many hours she spent on assignments, but she also found time to read, most of it serious literature, although several times she had to read again her favorite book, Ramona. She liked challenging teachers; she wrote she was "wild over Miss Richardson" in Mathematics, who died of cancer during her senior year. She had several physics courses with Frederick Saunders who taught at Mount Holyoke from 1942-1948. Calling on faculty as well as on other students was a common custom.

Mildred lived in Davison for the first three years and then in Main for her senior year. She frequently entertained at tea, attended lectures and concerts, church and meeting, took Bible classes, was an enthusiastic walker and tennis player. And she clearly kept up an extensive correspondence. There are very few references during this time to the war in Europe or to current affairs.

The letters from these four years provide a rich source of information about the experiences of an exceedingly bright young woman who gobbled up the opportunities which Vassar offered.

Graduate Studies and First Teaching 1916 - 1922

Awarded a Vassar fellowship, Mildred chose Clark University for her graduate work largely because of her wish to work with Professor A. G. Webster there; its proximity to her family in Boston, however, was an added advantage. She arrived in Worcester in September, found a room and started work on a Master's degree in Physics which she received in 1918. She had a congenial circle of friends, many of whom enjoyed the out-of-doors as she did and she was active in the Friends Meeting and taught a class of adults in the Sunday School. During her second year at Clark (1917-1918) the draft claimed many of her fellow graduate students. Webster was working on a bullet experiment with a "big German gun."

Mildred's two years of teaching at Mount Holyoke (1918-1920) were happy ones, though the flu epidemic cast its shadow over the College for part of that time. She assisted in the beginning physics course which had 87 students enrolled the first year, was responsible for the laboratory sessions and taught her own course in mechanics. Mead Hall where she lived housed the official College guests including the Sunday ministers, and she relished the opportunity to meet the outstanding preachers of the day as well as lecturers and guests who visited the College. She had a circle of friends with whom she enjoyed walking as well as the "winter sports" of skating and snow-shoeing and she continued with tennis. Clearly she loved the teaching and was genuinely interested in her students. Miss Laird, Department Chairman, was on leave in the Fall of 1919 which meant added responsibilities for others in the Department.

Special friends included Eleanor Doak (Mathematics), Margaret Shields Mabel Chase and Alice Foster (Physics) and Mimosa Pfalz (Chemistry).

Because Webster had plans to go on leave in 1920, Mildred arranged to continue her research work for the Ph.D. at M.I.T. She wrote her thesis on the emissivity of water and received the degree from Clark in June of 1922. During the Fall of 1921 she had a part-time teaching assignment at Wellesley College.

Since Mildred was living at home for most of this period, the letters for these years 1920-1922 are fewer, although she and her grandfather, who was now approaching 90, were still corresponding regularly. There are a number of letters from Adelaide Knight, a Vassar friend, as well as other Vassar classmates. Although under pressure from her research, her teaching, commuting and home responsibilities, she still managed to find some time for reading.

Intervening Years 1922 - 1933

1922-23 Wellesley teaching 1923-26 Mount Holyoke teaching 1926-27 Yale research 1927-30 Research Fellow, Bartol Foundation, Franklin Institute 1930-31 Oberlin teaching 1931-33 Research

The years between receiving her degree and settling permanently at Mount Holyoke were spent in research and in teaching assignments. The first year was spent at Wellesley but because of its proximity to home there are few letters from this period. Mildred's grandfather died in the Fall of 1922 so those letters which reported so regularly on her activities ceased. The only hint about this year comes from a letter written by her father in which he said (February 7, 1923) "I see no occasion for thee to stick to Wellesley on uninteresting work."

From 1923-1926 Mildred was back at Mount Holyoke where once again letters home described her experiences. During the last year she was considering job possibilities, but she decided to go to Yale in the Fall of 1926 to work with Professor William Swann, and when he moved on to the Bartol Foundation at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia she followed him there in the Fall of 1927. The laboratory was moved to a new building on the campus of Swarthmore College in the Spring of 1929 and Mildred moved out from the City to take a room with the Kents in Swarthmore. Through the late winter and spring of 1930 she continued to search for the kind of teaching position she wanted. There was a one-year appointment at Oberlin from 1930-1931 while she continued the search. No offers came and she spent the next two years in research, probably living at home. There are virtually no letters from this period, 1931-1933.

Throughout this time she continued her interest in the out-of-doors taking long walks - attending "meeting" very regularly, calling on her friends and her many relatives in the Philadelphia area, entertaining at tea. At Mount Holyoke's Mead Hall where she was permitted a hot plate in her room, mushroom suppers and oyster suppers were favorites. There were scientific meetings, visits to Vassar and Mount Holyoke as well as local class and college functions.

Friends and colleagues who appear in these letters: The Swain Family, especially Barbara, Mount Holyoke Faculty Helen Albro (Zoology) and Evelyn Clift '19 (Physics), Lucy Cope Shelmire '77, Sara Downer '18 (a letter from China January 4, 1923).

Mount Holyoke College: Associate Professor and Professor Physics 1933 - 1948

Mildred settled permanently at Mount Holyoke in the Fall of 1933. She continued to write regularly to her parents up until the time of their deaths in 1948. This period also includes letters by Elizabeth Laird written about monthly beginning in December of 1940 when she was retired and living in London, Ontario.

Mildred's letters are filled with detail about the courses she taught, her students and colleagues, department affairs, her research. She was extraordinarily conscientious in following student progress, correcting papers, preparing and checking laboratory experiments. One of her special pleasures was the meetings of the Quadrilateral Circle, Physics Faculty of the Four Valley Colleges. She was on committees of both the New England section of the American Physical Society and the American Association of Physics Teachers. She was appointed Department Chairman in 1946 and full Professor in 1947. She also served on Mount Holyoke Faculty Committees: Foreign Students, Scholarships, Committee to Appoint Committees and finally the Committee on Appointments, Promotions, etc. During the war there were changes in the college calendar and Mildred taught intensive physics courses during summer sessions. Personnel difficulties within the Department were exacerbated after the departure of Miss Laird in 1940 and the letters include extensive information about these problems and the involvement of President Ham.

When Mildred first returned to South Hadley in 1933, she lived at 14 Silver Street but when the faculty took a cut in salary in 1935. Miss Snell felt she had to alter her house arrangements and Mildred had to find new quarters. For a year she had a room at Miss Griffiths and then she moved into Hooker House. She took dinners at Faculty House which provided a wide circle of faculty friends. Her friendship with Miss Laird grew as they shared activities - walks, drives, picnics, movies, church, etc. A measure of her popularity with students was the frequency with which she was invited by college seniors to Towne House for Sunday afternoon tea. She enjoyed cooking and entertaining her friends and she especially enjoyed her garden and her piano, and she continued her interest in photography. She was active in the local AAUW.

Miss Laird's letters tell about her war work at the university in both teaching and research and about mutual friends, especially Alice Foster who had taught at Mount Holyoke and who was in Canada. There were a number of visits by Mildred to Canada and by Elizabeth Laird to South Hadley.

These letters covering a span of forty-eight years portray the career of a woman in the field of physics from early childhood through two wars and a depression to her life as a full professor at a college for women. The regularity of her reports and the details she includes about her personal and professional life provide a record of unusual historical interest.

Click here to download a detailed list of selected letters from this collection.

Members of the Physics Department (1933-1947) mentioned in the letters

  1. Mary Anne Benson (Douglas)
  2. Reina Sabel '41
  3. Dwight Bloodgood (Curator and Tech.)
  4. Frederick Saunders
  5. Edward Clancy
  6. Helen Stoelzel '37
  7. Elizabeth Cohen
  8. Hildegard Stucklen
  9. Dorothy Franklin '29
  10. Dorothy M. Taylor
  11. Eric Rogers
  12. Charles Tindal
  13. Rogers Rusk
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Encoding funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Repository Details

Part of the Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections Repository

50 College Street
8 Dwight Hall
South Hadley MA 01075-6425 USA