Mary Bunting-Smith Biography

American educator and scientist Mary Ingraham Bunting-Smith, also known as Polly Bunting (1910–1998), was a pioneering force in the education of women. Her most famous contributions were made in her role as the fifth president of Radcliffe College from 1960 to 1972, where she founded the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study (later renamed in her honor) and purposefully worked at integrating women into Harvard University. Her ongoing goal was to overcome what she termed the "climate of unexpectation" that existed for females at the time.

Early Years

Bunting-Smith was born to Henry A. and Mary Shotwell Ingraham on July 10, 1910, in Brooklyn, New York. Her father, an attorney, and mother, a community activist who once headed up the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), were nurturing and unorthodox parents. Thus, the young Bunting-Smith did not receive any formal education until the eighth grade, instead happily communing with nature at the family's country home on Long Island and cultivating a love of science and learning on her own. This unconventional childhood did not, however, prevent Bunting-Smith from excelling in a more traditional academic environment. Rather, it served her well.

Bunting-Smith began college at her mother's alma mater, Vassar, as a physics major. But it was not long before the nascent field of microbiology attracted her and she changed disciplines. She received her undergraduate degree in 1931 and went on to earn a Ph.D. in bacteriology from the University of Wisconsin at Madison (1934). While there, she met medical student Henry Bunting, who shared her love of science and nature, and the two were married in 1937. For the rest of her life, Bunting-Smith was widely known as Polly Bunting.

Early in her career, Bunting-Smith took on short-term assignments as her husband established himself. Those included stints as an instructor at Bennington College from 1936 to 1937 and at Goucher College from 1937 to 1938. In

the late 1930s the couple settled in Bethany, Connecticut, and started working at Yale University—he as a research pathologist and she as a part-time research assistant. Later in life, Bunting-Smith counted the Bethany years among the happiest of her life. She was professionally fulfilled, as she conducted groundbreaking research in microbial genetics that was published in 1939 and 1940. Her love of nature and family were also satisfied, as she raised goats and bees and brought up her four children. Additionally, she explored her interests in community and education by helping to establish a local high school. From 1946 to 1947 she was a lecturer on botany at Wellesley College, and from 1948 until 1955 she was a lecturer on microbiology at Yale. But Bunting-Smith's life was dramatically altered with the death of her husband in 1954.

Revelation and Douglass College

In keeping with the sexist standards of the times, Yale did not extend a full-time employment offer to the newly widowed Bunting-Smith. Such academic positions for women in the 1950s were nearly unheard of. So the 44-year-old scientist was forced to cast about for another way to support her family. The only opportunity that presented itself was in university administration, when Rutgers University proposed she become dean of its women's school, Douglass College, in 1955. It was a different world from the relatively solitary one of research, but Bunting-Smith drew upon her considerable internal resources and rose to the challenge.

Bunting-Smith had never been particularly interested in the issue of rights for women. Even in her old age, she steadfastly maintained that she had always been able to follow the path she chose and had never felt shunted aside because of her gender. Nonetheless, her new position at a women's college caused her to begin to reevaluate some of her views. And those inklings evolved into full-blown misgivings and, finally, an epiphany that gave Bunting-Smith new purpose.

Bunting-Smith's new direction was crystallized by her service on the Divisional Committee for Scientific Personnel and Education of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1958. The committee discovered that 98-99 percent of the top scorers on IQ tests in the United States who did not attend college were female. Even more telling was the blasé reaction of her mostly-male committee colleagues. "Nobody seemed to think it important," Elaine G. Yaffe quoted Bunting-Smith in the Douglass Alumnae magazine. "I was deeply puzzled. I felt that I was looking into a great dark cave that had been right beneath my feet all of my life without my knowing it. Beneath their feet too." Upon reflection, she realized that the problem was one of expectations. "Those scientists at the NSF had not valued the scientific potentialities of women…. This country didn't expect women to do important things. That was why so few women bothered to go on in the sciences or in many other demanding fields. That explained what inhibited women from developing and using their full intellectual capabilities. There was, I came to see, a climate of unexpectation as to what women were likely to contribute on any intellectual frontier."

That "climate of unexpectation" became Bunting-Smith's "watchphrase" and spurred her into action at Douglass. She secured a grant from the Ford Foundation to assess mathematical talent and interest among New Jersey women and launch the school's program in mathematics. She also recognized the different educational timetables that women often needed because of the demands of marriage and childbearing, and took on college rules against admitting married women and requiring full-time attendance. This resulted in what was eventually called the "Mary I. Bunting Program," a part-time program that allowed older, married women to continue or resume their educations. It was a radical departure from the norm, and the first of its kind in the United States. It was also an unmitigated success, celebrating its 25th anniversary in 1984 and still in full swing in 2007. Yet the innovative and enduring contributions of Bunting-Smith had just begun.

Radcliffe Years

In 1960 Bunting-Smith moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to assume the presidency of Radcliffe College. Radcliffe was strictly a women's college then, the sister institution to Harvard. But Bunting-Smith had other ideas. Within her first year she established the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study (renamed in her honor in 1978). Its purpose was to provide fellowships to enable mature women with family responsibilities to spend a year in study and pick up their once-promising careers again. It was another revolutionary Bunting-Smith project and another resounding success, with alumnae that included poet Anne Sexton, writer Alice Walker, and scientist Sylvia Earle. Indeed, the institute was so original and noteworthy that it landed Bunting-Smith on the cover of Time in 1961.

Bunting-Smith also quickly turned her attention toward the integration of Radcliffe into Harvard University. Under her watch, Radcliffe students were first granted Harvard degrees, women gained admission to Harvard's graduate and business schools, and the Radcliffe Graduate School was merged with Harvard's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Not incidentally, she also supported coeducational housing, designed a new residential house system for undergraduates, oversaw the building of Hillel Library (which was open to both men and women), and spearheaded a capital-raising campaign that brought in funds for both renovation and financial aid.

By anyone's yardstick or era, Bunting-Smith's myriad accomplishments would have been remarkable. But they are rendered even more so by the period (1960–1972) and environment in which she managed them. The 1960s were a decade of staunch resistance to change among university trustees, administrators, faculty, and alumni reluctant to see tradition tampered with. Conversely, students and university personnel were often caught up in the protests, tensions, and rebellion stemming from the Vietnam War and carrying over to outdated policies and structures of the universities they attended. It was against this tumultuous backdrop that Bunting-Smith efficiently and astutely dealt with conflicting factions and pushed her agendas to fruition. In a meeting of the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences on October 17, 2000, cited in the Harvard University Gazette , former colleagues Frederick H. Abernathy, Derek C. Bok, Giles Constable, John T. Dunlop, and Edward L. Keenan posted the following explanation of Bunting-Smith's success included in a memorial to her attributes and endeavors: "Polly Bunting was without the vices of her many virtues. She always had a plan, but never schemed. She was totally dedicated to her goals, but never allowed her deep commitment to distort her judgment. She had grand ambitions for Radcliffe and for women, but was devoid of personal vanity. Possessed of prodigious energy, she was never impatient. She deftly out-maneuvered students, alumnae, faculties, boards, and, on occasion, the undersigned, but made no enemies. She will be remembered as a quiet visionary and thoroughly admirable colleague."

Bunting-Smith left Radcliffe in 1972. That same year, the United States Congress passed the Title IX Act , precluding schools from discriminating by gender. There remained work to be done, of course, but Bunting-Smith had left an imprint that few could hope to surpass.


Bunting-Smith's landmark achievements did not go unnoticed. Among the many accolades and honors she received were the Gold Medal of the National Institute of Social Scientists in 1962, service as the first female commissioner of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in 1964, and over a dozen honorary degrees. She was also a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, the Committee on the Status of Women during the administration of President John F. Kennedy, and the Task Force on Youth under President Richard M. Nixon.

Nor did Bunting-Smith's life end upon leaving Radcliffe. She became special assistant for co-education at Princeton University in 1972, where she stayed for three years. In 1975 she returned to Cambridge and married Dr. Clement Smith. That marriage lasted until Smith's death in 1988, whereupon Bunting-Smith moved to Hanover, New Hampshire. She passed away there on January 21, 1998, at the age of 87.

In 2004 Mary Ingraham Bunting: Her Two Lives was published. Written by Yaffe, it chronicled Bunting-Smith's extraordinary life and legacy. But perhaps the innovator's own prophetic words, as quoted from the Boston Globe in the Fresno Bee , summed up her formidable foresight and insight in a briefer fashion. "I am convinced the road that lies ahead for women is a dual one of motherhood and career," she said. "It will not only be possible but almost mandatory to do both if you want to do either well." Bunting-Smith did both admirably, and opened the way for other women to do the same.


Boston Herald , January 28, 1998.

Fresno Bee , January 23, 1998.

Women in Higher Education , March 2006.


"Bunting-Smith, Mary, 1910–1998," Harvard University Library, December 1993,∼rca00011 (November 27, 2006).

"History of Bunting-Cobb," Rutgers University,∼wendyi/bc_history.html (November 27, 2006).

"Mary Bunting-Smith Dies at 87," Harvard University Gazette , January 29, 1998, (November 27, 2006).

"Mary Ingraham Bunting," Harvard Magazine , March-April 2006, (November 27, 2006).

"Memorial Minutes: Mary Ingraham Bunting-Smith: Faculty of Arts and Sciences," Harvard University Gazette , January 18, 2001, (November 27, 2006).

"Pillar of Radcliffe, Bunting-Smith, Dies," Harvard Crimson , January 23, 1998, (November 27, 2006).

"Polly Bunting Returns to Radcliffe," Radcliffe Quarterly , Winter 2006, (November 27, 2006).

"'The Awakening': Dean Mary I. Bunting's Douglass College Years," Douglass Alumnae Magazine , Winter/Spring 2004, (November 27, 2006).

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