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Ada Louise Comstock

Ada Louise Comstock

Born on December 11, 1876 in Moorhead, Minnesota, Ada Comstock was the eldest of three children; she was bright, vivacious, and very much a tomboy in her early childhood. Her father, a successful lawyer, recognized her capabilities and potential and set about to cultivate them by encouraging an early and sound education for his daughter. She completed her high school education at the age of fifteen and attended the University of Minnesota. In 1895 she transferred from there to Smith College, where she completed her last two years of undergraduate study. As a Smith student, Ada often questioned the established rules and norms of college life. While a resident of Hubbard House, she was given a case of champagne which the housemother felt should be given away. Instead, in what was characteristically her spirit, she decided to store it in the water cooler to refresh her friends!

After graduating from Smith in 1897, Ada attended a graduate program in teaching at Moorhead State Normal School. She then entered Columbia University for graduate work in English, History, and Education, and by 1899 was ready to return home to look for a job. In 1907, after teaching rhetoric at the University of Minnesota, she was appointed the University’s first Dean of Women. In this capacity, she was instrumental in improving the quality of life for the women of the college, arguing persistently that a college was responsible for one’s physical and intellectual well-being.

In 1912, Ada came to Smith as the first ever Dean of the College and to teach English. Particularly challenging to her was the opportunity to advise and teach young women in an all-female institution. One of the most important tenets of her educational philosophy was the inculcation in young women of self-respect, one aspect of which was knowing how to employ oneself. Ada believed very strongly throughout her entire life that a college education should inspire women to take a part in the shaping of the world. In 1917, when the Presidency of Smith College became vacant, Ada was given the responsibility of its operation for approximately 6 months, but was neither given the title of acting President nor was she considered for the position. Comstock was an early member of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae, later called the American Association of University Women (AAUW) which she served as president. She was a founding member and one of the five American voting delegates to the first conference of the International Federation of University Women in London in 1920 and at the second in Paris in 1922. One of their objectives was to forward higher education for women in every country in the world. She was active in other areas in public life as well. In 1929 she was the only woman named by President Herbert Hoover to an eleven-person commission to study problems of law enforcement. She was a president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vice Chairman of the American Council of Institute of Pacific Relations and served on the National Committee for Planned Parenthood.

The chance to become the President of a women’s college presented itself in 1923 when Radcliffe offered her the position of their first full-time President. Throughout most of her administration, Comstock struggled with trying to maintain a balance between Radcliffe’s association with Harvard and its establishment as an independent women’s college. Under President Comstock, Radcliffe was able to launch a nationwide admission program, improve student housing, construct new classroom buildings and expand the graduate program. In short, Radcliffe’s permanence was assured. In 1943, Ada felt her work at Radcliffe was complete. She had brought the institution to distinction and maturity, and it was now time to move on.

Her honors were numerous, fourteen honorary degrees were conferred on her, including Smith’s LHD in 1922. Each of the three institutions she had served, the University of Minnesota, Smith and Radcliffe Colleges have residence halls named for her. At the age of sixty-seven, she stepped down from the Presidency and shortly after announced her marriage to Wallace Notestein, Sterling Professor Emeritus of History at Yale University, a man she had known since her days at the University of Minnesota. Retirement for Ada was an extremely busy period in her life. She continued to be actively involved with the Board of Trustees of Smith College, worked on plans for the graduate center at Radcliffe, did extensive educational committee work, administered a two-career household, and traveled extensively with her husband. Mrs. Notestein died in December of 1973.

For further information please see: The Ada Comstock Scholars Program’s History of Ada Comstock at and

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