Enjoying a 'peculiar' retirement

Ruth Schwartz Cowan

“If this is retirement, it’s a very peculiar form of retirement.”

Since her retirement, Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s career has really taken off.

Not too long ago, frustrated with her job at the State University of New York at Stony Brook—a place that often made her feel, she says, like an academic “outlier,” despite her sterling reputation as a historian of science and technology— Cowan decided it was time to move on.

The year was 2002, and with their youngest daughter almost ready to graduate from college, Cowan and her husband realized they would no longer need two salaries. It made sense, Cowan remembers, for her to be the one to retire. “I was supposed to retire,” Cowan recalls. “And then Penn made an offer I couldn’t refuse.”

The offer? To come to Penn and, after years of laboring as an outsider at Stony Brook, join a department where she could work with colleagues and graduate students with the same academic interests as her. Although uncertain at first, Cowan said she soon realized Penn was offering her an opportunity to live the academic life she always craved—and the chance to close out her career in an environment where she could work more freely, more easily and more happily than ever. She arrived at Penn in 2002 and, today, serves as chair of the Department of History and Sociology of Science. She is—finally, she says—teaching the kind of courses, and the kind of students, she never could at Stony Brook, and she also continues to work on two large projects of her own: a history of genetic screening and a history of women engineers, which she is co-authoring with her husband, Neil.

Working at Penn, she says, has made for one very happy scholar—and a very unique “retirement.”

Q. Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when you began researching and writing about the history of technology, your work was considered cutting-edge. Did your students and colleagues at Stony Brook appreciate that?
The students had no idea. Undergraduates, with a few exceptions, when they take a history course, they’re taking the course because they’re required to, or because …it fits into their schedules. So did they know they were getting cutting edge stuff? I really don’t think so. I was hired by that department as a historian of science, with a specialty in English, because I had written my dissertation about an Englishman and my first teaching in the department had been in English history, 1066 to the present. My department thought of me as a Europeanist. Then I went out and published this book on American women’s history [about household technology], which was a way-out-there field when I did it, and there was some doubt as to whether I’d even get a promotion.

Q. So your experience at Stony Brook was frustrating?

Ruth Schwartz Cowan

A.I personally became very frustrated by my situation. Though I wasn’t terribly happy, I found a wonderful way to get happier, when I became chair of the honors college at Stony Brook, which was the program for our very brightest. But that basically was just a holding strategy until our last child graduated from college and we didn’t need my salary anymore. And then our agreement was I was going to retire.

Q. What did you first think when Penn called?
They called me and asked if I would be interested [in a job] and I said, “I’m not sure, because I really am ready to retire.” Then I went home and thought about it and said, “Oh my God! I could end my career teaching graduate students who really care about this field!” So in the space of a year I accepted the Penn offer and retired from Stony Brook. It was a very good year.

Q. What did you know about Penn’s department when they offered you a job?
I had had lots of contact with the department over the years, in large part because it was the premier department in our field in the country, from the perspective of the social history of science. Because of my growing interest in the history of technology, which is social and economic, more than the history of science, I had lots of contact with this department. I co-supervised dissertations and I had come here regularly to give papers. Some of the members of this department have been friends of mine since graduate school.

Q. How were your early experiences at Penn?
When I came here in the fall of 2002, they asked me to teach the first-year historiography seminar for graduate students. That was 2002. I had gotten my Ph.D. in 1969—that’s how many years? Thirty-three?—and that was the first time I had ever given a graduate course in my field. [Smiles] It has just been a pleasure to be here.

Q. How has the move to Penn changed the way you do your research?
Right now I’m doing two projects: A history of women engineers and a history of genetic screening, called “The History and Politics of Genetic Screening,” that connects my original interest in the history of genetics with my understanding now of the history of technology. But to do that research, I have to rely heavily on medical libraries. When I was at Stony Brook, this was a real problem. Stony Brook has a medical school, but it was founded in 1968, so its library wasn’t adequate for my purposes. That means I had to go into Manhattan. ... So coming here meant having the [Penn] library at my doorstep. It was a whole other universe, for research purposes.

Q. How about your other project, the history of women engineers? How did that come about?
That, too, is a story. Historians love to tell stories. When I became active in the history of technology, it was on the basis of my work on household technology, so my reputation as a historian of technology was connected to gender studies … and I had an interest in women’s studies from the time women’s studies was getting started. I had also published a piece about an early woman engineer named Ellen Swallow Richards, who was the first woman to get a degree from MIT, in 1873. So, sometime in the late 1980s, the Sloan Foundation decided to fund a series of made-for-television documentaries on women scientists, and they called a committee of scholars to work with the producers. I was put on that committee, and we worked for about two years, off and on, with the producers and the scriptwriters.

At the end of that two years, they produced a preliminary script, and had a meeting about it. I said I was very disappointed they hadn’t included any women engineers. The producers said they had tried, but couldn’t find any. I said, “That’s weird, because I have a whole file on women engineers. Why didn’t you ask?”

Q. Then what happened? How did you end up taking on the project with your husband?
About two weeks later, the program director for the enterprise called me on the phone, and said, “I’ve been thinking about that file of yours. Would you be interested in writing a book on the subject?” I said, “No. I’ve got this other hot project on the history of genetic screening and I’m just in the process of getting it off the ground.” The program director said, “Well, can you think of a collaborator?” I said, “No, I can’t. I’ve never worked with a collaborator before.” I’m just not one of those kinds of scholars. With one or two exceptions, everything I’ve published has been in my own name. He said to think about and I said, “OK, I’ll think about it.” Well, I was in my study at my home when that call came in, and at the same time, my husband came home, and a light bulb went off in my head. … It just turned out to be a natural fit.

Q. Any surprises in the research?
Absolutely. We had a hypothesis when we started, and it’s actually written into the Sloan Foundation grant application. The title was and is still “Breaking the Mold.” What we mean by that title is that women engineers are neither classic feminists in any period you study them … and in no period of time are they classic engineers, either. Though the woman engineer as a role breaks two molds, these are fascinating people who have danced on the borderlines of both a political thing and a professional thing. Engineers tend to be trained to be apolitical, but feminism is politics. So how do you manage that? What we found after a fair amount of interviews is that you keep your politics out of the workplace. In some instances, you deny altogether that what you’re doing has anything do with politics, even though the outside observer would say, “You’re the only woman engineer in a firm of 2,500 men and you’re telling me you have no politics?”

Q. You seem be living a very full post-retirement existence. How do you see the next few years playing out?
If this is retirement, it’s a very peculiar form of retirement. I hope the engineers research will be finished before I actually retire from Penn. I’ve learned too much in my career to any longer predict the future. Did I predict we would have four grandchildren by now? No. Did I predict I was going to become chair of this department a year after I moved to Penn? No.

Q. You seem pretty happy, though.
Yes, very happy, with a capital ‘Y.’ The difference between being in an institution that’s private and has an endowment, and being in an institution subject to the vagaries of the state legislature – it’s just a completely different world.

The difference between being in a department which is focused on the field I’ve devoted my career do, as opposed to being in a department where I was seen as an outlier, and being with such bright students? Everyone should end a career this way. I feel very blessed.

Originally published on January 27, 2005