Go to navigation (press enter key)Menu

Bettyann Holtzmann Kevles '59

I graduated in 1959 as a History major with almost all of my courses in English and European History, save for a semester with Carl Degler that I added at the last moment when someone noticed I had had no American History.   I made up for that omission by accepting a job working as a Research Assistant at Princeton with Eric F. Goldman who had just published The Crucial Decade and would in the next few years work for Lyndon Johnson in the White House, and write The Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson.   Eric insisted I attend lectures from the best of his Princeton colleagues and had me reading every page of the New York Times from January 1900 for a few years, as well as other contemporary sources, to see what people at the time felt was important.  And then he had me choose people in the news and write short biographies of them.  This was for a book he did not complete when the Johnson White House captured his interest.  After a semester at Princeton I proceeded to Columbia where I was headed before I postponed my start to go to Princeton. There I wrote a rather long Master's essay in English History, and left for England where I married Dan Kevles, who I had met at Princeton. His tutor at Oxford, Alan Bullock, found me a job at the Oxford Mail. I loved Oxford in many ways, and often thought of Mildred Campbell and her connection to Lady Margaret Hall.

 At Vassar the most important influence on me intellectually was Mildred Campbell.  I took all of the courses she offered, and never forgot the message she sent when assigning dreary records of grain production in different counties that "Anything examined in depth is interesting."  That served me well in Oxford and later in Princeton where I wrote for thePacket. I moved to Pasadena, California in 1964 where my husband joined the faculty of Caltech.  Hating to drive the freeways, I found that the best game in town was Caltech, and I apprenticed myself to a great many wonderful, generous and brilliant scientists, and became a science writer, and in fact a historian of science since most of my books have been published by university presses.

At Yale I am a senior lecturer in the History department.  When I was at Vassar there were not very many History majors and we became friends. We always used sources, and wrote note-topics. I wonder if that is still part of the curriculum.  I am beginning my last semester at Yale this week. My husband is in phased retirement and I will phase out with him. When I began to teach (in Pasadena), I more or less taught the way I had been taught at Vassar. Whether I am writing about the role of women in the Space Programs of the United States or what was once the USSR, or the way that the power to see through solid objects changed the culture of much of the 20th century, I use the skills and enthusiasm I learned from the historians at Vassar.

Have a memory you would like to add?

Email us at history@vassar.edu