Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Nobel-Prize Robert Millikan advises against hiring of a woman in the physics department at Duke University

This year, W. P. Few, the President of Duke University, asked physicist Robert Millikan for his advise on the hiring of a woman for a position in the Physics Department. Robert Millikan was a famous scientist who had won the 1923 Nobel Prize of Physics and at this time was the head of the California Institute of Technology.

In his response to Few, Robert Millikan said: "I would expect the more brilliant and able young men to be drawn into the graduate department by the character of the men on the staff, rather than the character of the women" (quoted in Rossiter 1982:192-93). He concluded the letter by saying, "I should therefore expect to go farther in influence and get more for my expenditure if in introducing young blood into the department of physics I picked one or two of the most outstanding younger men, rather than if I filled one of my openings with a woman" (quoted in Goodstein 2000).

Despite Robert A. Millikan's advice, Few hired Hertha Sponer (1895 - 1968), who had a successful academic career at Duke University, and had made important contributions to science through work on the application of modern quantum mechanics to atomic and molecular physics. Interestingly enough, in 1934 Hertha Sponer had been dismissed from her post as professor extraordinarius in the University of Goettingen when Hitler came to power, not because she was a non-Aryan but because she was a woman.1

Rosalind Rosenberg, in The Limits of Access: The History of Coeducation in America (1986) argues that Millikan's recommendation was consistent with the position of many male scientists on this matter, which basically could justify admitting women as students, for they brought in money, but were concerned that hiring women as faculty and advancing them to higher positions would undermine an institution's effort to attract the best young men.

Millikan's letter was found by historian Margaret W. Rossiter in the archives of Duke University when she was doing research for her book on women scientists in the USA. When she found the letter. Duke archivist William King recalls his feeling of excitement in being part of Rossiter's 'Eureka moment' because she had been looking for evidence of explicit discrimination for some time. In King's words, "she literally shrieked when she found it. She knew that there was a prejudice against hiring women faculty in the sciences, but she hadn't been able to find written proof. She told us she'd been looking for [such proof] for years" (Booher 1997).

For a feminist critique to Millikan in this particular situation, in the context of gender discrimination in academia, see Rossiter (1982) and Rosenberg (1986). For a defense of Millikan, see Goodstein (2000).


Booher, Bridget (1997). A Home For History. Recording Duke's Evolution. Duke Magazine 12, September-October< Web Edition. 

Goodstein, David (2000). In the Case of Robert Andrews Millikan. Acceptance Speech on Occasion of Receiving the John P. McGovern award by the Sigma Xi Scientific Society. 

Rosenberg, Rosalind (1986). The Limits of Access: The History of Coeducation in America. In Faragher and Howe,  (eds.), Women and Higher Education in American History, pp. 107-129, Norton. 

Rossiter, Margaret (1982). Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins.


1 Letter dated February 27, 1934 from Marion Hines, Department of Anatomy of Johns Hopkins University, to Dr. Kathryn McHale, Director of American Association of University Women. Courtesy Duke University Archives]. cited in "Sponer-Franck, Hertha.", in Contributions of 20th century women to science (CWP).,_Hertha@838834963.html

Prepared by DS (OISE/University of Toronto), 2005

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