I am humbled and honoured to have been selected by my department to be appointed to the O.N. Allen Professorship in Soil Microbiology. The five-year professorship began officially on July 1, and is in honour of Oscar N. Allen as a gift of his wife, Ethel K. Allen. The support from this professorship will allow me to ask some very exciting research questions about the fundamental nature of microbial microhabitats in soil.
The extreme generosity of the Allens has had wide-reaching impacts at UW-Madison, and includes, in addition to this professorship, a chair in the department of Plant Pathology, support to CALS for internship grants and merit scholarships, endowments to the Steenbock Library and the Chazen Museum of Art, and support in the creation of and an endowment for the upkeep of the beautiful Allen Centennial Gardens, which lie just outside our Soil Sciences building.
Oscar and Ethel Allen met at UW-Madison, where he got his PhD and she did her bachelor’s degree in botany and an MS in bacteriology in 1930. They moved to Hawaii, where he was a professor for 15 years, after which they moved to the University of Maryland in 1942, but soon returned to the department of bacteriology at U.W. Madison, in 1943. Together they researched and wrote a key book on nitrogen fixation and legumes – The Leguminosae, a Source Book of Characteristics, Uses, and Nodulation.
I was delighted to find an oral history interview with Ethel Allen from the UW-Madison Oral History Program. It was truly fascinating to hear her perspectives on being a scientist herself as well as the wife of a scientist. She seems to have broken down barriers faced by women in science, while simultaneously playing a traditional role as a wife. For example, she and Oscar worked side-by-side, as equals, and she would regularly be first author on papers. She felt that she was respected completely by her colleagues, as a scholar in her own right. She noted, “Wives didn’t work in the same departments with their husbands in those days. In fact, wives seldom worked,” and that the other faculty wives probably figured she was “helping” her husband – maybe by washing dishes in the lab. At the same time, she explained that she did not leave Hawaii after the Pearl Harbour attacks, saying, “Who was going to do the grocery shopping?” And, she was not paid – “I worked with him-with no pay […] this was understood.” When asked directly by the interviewers, though, she said she had “never experienced discrimination.” She is a fascinating and inspiring person. I am so grateful for her generosity to the university and the Department of Soil Science and hope that she would be pleased with my research.