“the idea of having a girl grade their papers”: Katherine Fischer Drew, 1923-2023

Sometimes when I don’t know where to start I just go all the way back to the beginning. This is Katherine Martha Fischer. We would know her later as Mrs. Drew but here it’s 1944 and she’s a graduating senior at Rice. She was a spectacular student, awarded the Bryan-Chapman Scholarship in 1943 and a Franklin Scholarship in 1944 by a faculty that readily celebrated her intellectual accomplishment. She was a member of the Honor Council and Phi Beta Kappa:

The world she lived in then was so profoundly different from the one we know today. A few years ago a colleague shared a letter with me that gives a sharp sense of how different things were for women at Rice back then and also a sharp sense of Katherine Drew’s character and ability even as a very young woman. It was written by Rice history professor Floyd Lear, one of her mentors, and dated July 1, 1945. (Click on it to enlarge.) In it, he describes the challenges of teaching at wartime Rice and in particular the assistance he received from Katie Fischer ’44:

Able to navigate those waters at a fairly tender age–in 1945 she would have been in her early twenties–the attention to detail (“she knew her stuff”) and no nonsense attitude (“some disciplinary traits desirable in a Chief Petty Officer”) that she displayed here served her well as a the first woman to hold a tenure track job at Rice. Her hiring was thought in some quarters to be a bit of a risk, as who could predict how a woman would work out, but her track record, now including a Cornell doctorate, was solid and the History Department needed her.

For the next four and a half decades she quietly proved that the decision was sound. She was meticulous in her work and dedicated to Rice and to her students. She chaired the History Department for a decade and over the course of so many years she was frequently the voice of reason on a variety of university committees. Ramrod straight, she seemed so formal but could also be very funny–she authored in fact the funniest memo I’ve ever come across in the Rice archives (and unlike most funny academic memos it was intentional.)

For a long time she had a two connected offices on the fifth floor of Fondren. I was still in graduate school when the time came to consolidate them into one and she asked me to help with that task. (My first office clean out, now that I think about it.) I was staggered by the file cabinets full of carefully organized note cards, which all had to be kept for future reference. I walked away, though, with a treasure–a shelf full of foreign language dictionaries and phrase books collected during her travels.

I was lucky to know her.

Katherine Fischer Drew, rest in peace.


Bonus: Mrs. Drew with Floyd Lear at his retirement celebration,.

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4 Responses to “the idea of having a girl grade their papers”: Katherine Fischer Drew, 1923-2023

  1. James McAdams says:

    As an engineering student in the 70s, trying to avoid the reputation for “heavy lifting” of the more standard history courses, I thought ancient history sounded easier. That’s where I met Mrs. Drew. It was not easy and I struggled just to pass. But I enjoyed the course and was left with an admiration for Mrs. Drew that has kept her returning to my thoughts over these decades.

  2. Erwin Groner says:

    A great history teacher.

  3. Jerry Outlaw says:

    Thank you for this short but illuminating review of Dr. Drew’s career at Rice. I thoroughly enjoyed her lectures in introductory American History and agree that they were frequently very humorous, if you were paying attention.

  4. Dr. Drew helped me at Rice.
    Rice Institute had a policy such that I and other pre-meds could acquire all necessary courses in 3 years and move on to Med. School. However, the Institute made us change horses: we had to have a major.
    Ms. Drew was my advisor. However she nixed my idea of avoiding HER course,
    “History of Western Civilizaton” or whatever — after all, how could that help ME? But I was allowed to avoid one upper history course. (Thus, I never got to take a Floyd Lear course. My loss, !)
    She was right; her course furnished me a lifelong joy and appreciation of “Ancient History”.

    A story about Ms. Drew was that she had been such an extraordinary beauty that she had to adopt rather strict female dress in order to avoid excessive male attention; I never learned whether that story was true.
    Is the above Groner one of the members of our Rice (1956) Championship Fencing team? ER ???

    Jerry Outlaw, I do NOT remember an “introductory American History” course at Rice in my 1952-56 year.

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