Since joining the faculty of Harvard University in 2002, Evelynn Hammonds has risen through its ranks to two significant firsts at America's oldest and most prestigious institution of higher learning: In 2005 she was named Harvard's first senior vice provost for diversity, a new job title at Harvard, and three years later she became the first woman and first African American to serve as dean of Harvard College, the undergraduate school. Hammonds is also a historian who specializes in the history of medicine and public health in America. She told Eugene Mccormack, Robin Wilson, and Paul Fain in the Chronicle of Higher Education that while her job as provost "has been very interesting and very challenging, it's really taken me away from the students, and I wanted to get back to working with undergraduate education and undergraduate life."
Hammonds was born in 1953 and grew up in the Atlanta, Georgia, area as the daughter of a postal worker and a teacher. A top student, she achieved an impressive feat in 1976, the year she turned twenty-three: She earned a bachelor of science degree in physics from Spelman College, plus an electrical engineering degree from the Georgia Institute of Technology. She went on to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for a master's in physics, which was granted in 1980. For the next five years she worked in the private sector as a software engineer.
When Hammonds decided to return to school for a doctorate, she chose a new field, the history of science. Harvard offered a doctoral degree in the subject, and Hammonds earned hers in 1993 with her dissertation "The Search for Perfect Control: A Social History of Diphtheria." By then she was already teaching courses in the history of science at MIT, whose campus in the city of Cambridge is near Harvard's. She became an associate professor at MIT in 1997, received tenure a year later—in academia, a designation that makes the job a permanent one—and became a full professor in 2002. She also founded the school's Center for the Study of Diversity in Science, Technology, and Medicine in 2001.
During this period at MIT, Hammonds's first book was published, Childhood's Deadly Scourge: The Campaign to Control Diphtheria in New York City, 1880-1930.. In it, she examined efforts by public-health officials in New York City to eradicate the infectious disease, whose "mortality rate was frightening high," she wrote in the introduction, "with children being its most frequent victims. Unlike cholera, smallpox, or yellow fever, diphtheria did not manifest itself in spectacular epidemics, leaving thousands dead in a short period of time. Despite yearly fluctuations, diphtheria was endemic and took a steady toll, claiming more than a thousand deaths per year in the 1890s."
As Hammonds's book demonstrates, only through a combination of scientific advances in bacteriology and a concerted effort by visiting nurses and medical clinics that served the poor and immigrant communities to introduce preventative measures was diphtheria's rate of occurrence sharply reduced. One effort was a largescale immunization program for youngsters by the New York City Health Department, which was the first of its kind in the United States. The city's public-health officials, bolstered in part by a newspaper campaign about prevention efforts, were also successful in securing new guidelines for quarantining patients. Reviewing the book for the Journal of Social History, Jacqueline H. Wolf noted that "Hammonds hesitates to draw any lessons from the diphtheria experience for our contemporary struggle with AIDS," in her concluding paragraphs, "but offers three observations. Testing for a disease must be linked with reliable treatment and prevention, public health education must be geared to diverse populations (a lesson forgotten between 1930 and 1980), and public health messages must avoid social fragmentation and stigma."
In 2002 Hammonds moved to Harvard University as a professor of the history of science and of African and African-American studies. Less than three years later the campus erupted in controversy over remarks made by the Harvard University president Lawrence H. Summers at an academic conference in which he discussed several theories on why women had not achieved professional parity in science and technology. One possibility, Summers noted, was based on the idea that women had less of an "intrinsic aptitude" for these subjects, an idea that was based on studies of gender differences in standardized test scores. Summers was assailed in the media and on Harvard's campus, where some faculty and students called for his resignation. While some noted that he did not directly say that women were not as smart as men, they conceded that the Harvard president had made some notable blunders on the job, including his opposition to efforts to restore the position of dean for affirmative action.
A few weeks after the incident, Marcella Bombardieri in the Boston Globe interviewed Hammonds and asked her about the issue. While Hammonds did not openly criticize Summers for his remarks, she conceded that Harvard had its shortcomings as a welcoming place for women and minorities. "I spent 10 years at MIT, and I would say that Harvard has not advanced over that decade, while MIT went miles ahead of where Harvard is now," she told Bombardieri. "At this point, our lack of focus is not a good thing, and we intend to rectify it."
To appease critics, Harvard announced that it would spent $50 million over the next decade recruiting more students and faculty for its science and engineering departments. Two task forces were created, and Hammonds was named cochair of one of them, the Task Force on Women Faculty. Its duties were to review how the searches for faculty positions were conducted, assess Harvard's policies on promotion and rank to ensure that women professors had an equal chance at tenure, and create a set of guidelines for a new dean's office to oversee the recommendations.
The committee report was released in May of 2005, and two months later Harvard announced that Hammonds would fill that new dean's position, now called the senior vice provost for diversity. "This past academic year has really been a turning point for the University with respect to concerns expressed about gender equity, diversity, work-life issues, and faculty development more broadly," she said at the news of her appointment, according to John Longbrake in the Harvard Gazette. "There is a lot of momentum for change and this is the time to put that energy into developing effective institutional structures and practices. I'm excited to be a part of the process of making Harvard the leading institution on these issues."
At a Glance …
Born Evelynn Maxine Hammonds in 1953 in Atlanta, GA; daughter of a postal worker and a teacher. Education: Spelman College, BS, physics, 1976; Georgia Institute of Technology, BEE, 1976; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, SM, physics, 1980; Harvard University, PhD, 1993.
Career: Software engineer, 1980-85; Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), assistant professor of the history of science, 1992-97, associate professor, 1997-2002, professor, 2002; MIT Center for the Study of Diversity in Science, Technology, and Medicine, founding director, 2001-02; Harvard University, professor of the history of science, professor of African and African-American studies, 2002-07; Harvard's Task Force on Women Faculty, cochair, 2005; senior vice provost for diversity, 2005-08; Barbara Gutmann Rosenkrantz Professor of the History of Science and of African and African American Studies, 2007—; dean of Harvard College, 2008—.
Memberships: American Historical Association; Organization of American Historians; History of Science Society; American Association for the History of Medicine.
Addresses: Office—Harvard University, Department of the History of Science, 225 Science Center, 1 Oxford St., Cambridge, MA 02138.
Hammonds's stint as provost ended in June of 2008, when she was named dean of Harvard College, the undergraduate school. She was the first woman and first African American in Harvard history to hold the job. It also allowed her to return to teaching classes in the departments of African-American studies and the history of science.
"Missing Persons: Black Women and AIDS," in Words of Fire: An Anthology of African American Feminist Thought, edited by Beverly Guy-Sheftall, New Press, 1995.
Childhood's Deadly Scourge: The Campaign to Control Diphtheria in New York City, 1880-1930, John Hopkins University Press, 1999.
Boston Globe, July 21, 2005.
Chronicle of Higher Education, March 14, 2008.
Harvard Citizen, October 6, 2005.
Harvard University Gazette, July 20, 2005.
Journal of Social History, Winter 2000, p. 484.
"Evelynn M. Hammonds, Department of African and African-American Studies at Harvard University," Harvard University, http://aaas.fas.harvard.edu/faculty/evelynn_m_hammonds.html (accessed June 6, 2008).