We’re kicking off our Women’s History Month posts with a faculty member, administrator, academic dean, and author close to our hearts here at Virginia Tech: Laura Jane Harper. For those of you familiar with the History of Food and Drink Collection’s origins, the Peacock-Harper Culinary Collection, you can guess why the late Dean Emeritus Harper is even more special to us in Special Collections. Without her cookbook collection, I wouldn’t be blogging about food history today!
Laura Jane Harper was born in Jackson, Mississippi, and received her bachelor’s degree from Belhaven College in 1934, her Master of Science degree from the University of Tennessee in 1948, and her Ph.D. from Michigan State University in 1956.1
Harper first joined the faculty at VPI in 1948, but took an educational leave in 1951 to pursue her doctorate. She returned in 1956 as a a full professor, resumed teaching, and completed her dissertation. During her career she taught graduate and undergraduate nutrition courses. In addition to teaching, Harper also conducted research for the Virginia Agricultural Experimental Station as director of home economics research. Her research focused on food habits, food and culture, nutrition in international development, and nutrient metabolism. In 1958, she began an interim term as the head of the Home Economics Department. When the department became a college two years later, she was the first women to serve as an academic dean at VPI and the first dean of the College of Home Economics (a position she held for twenty years, until she retired in 1980). For more about her, see the online thesis: A Fighter To The End: The Remarkable Life and Career Of Laura Jane Harper.
Dr. Harper was also an advocate for women in higher education, as both students and teachers. Our holdings of her written materials may be few, but they are powerful.
In honor of her work to the university, there is a dorm building on campus named after her. too. Finished in 1999, according to the resolution, Harper Hall was named as “an enduring tribute to Dean Emeritus Laura Jane Harper, a true pioneer, educator, and leader with remarkable vision who profoundly influenced the course of education at Virginia Tech, leaving a legacy of equal educational opportunity for all.”2
You can find a great deal more material related to Dr. Harper’s administrative role in the University Archives, primarily in the form of correspondence with other campus leaders:
Records of the Office of the Vice President for Administration, Stuart K. Cassell, 1945-1975. Finding aid available online.
- Records of T. Marshall Hahn, 1962-1974. Finding aid available online.
- Records of the Office of Vice President (1963-1966) and the Office of Executive Vice President (1968-1969), Warren W. Brandt, 1958-1969. Finding aid available online.
Records of William James McKeefery, Vice President, Virginia Polytechnic Institute, 1969-1973. Finding aid available online.
As with last year, this is the first in a series of four posts for women’s history month. While (I hope) I am always honoring the contributions of women to the food and drink history, this is an opportunity to look a little closer at the lives of the women, in addition to their works. Join me as we stroll through three more women of culinary history again this March. I have some interesting profiles planned, continuing next week with Mrs. Harriet Anne De Salis, a London author who also wrote a book on one of my favorite topics: cocktails!