Peterson, Martha

Peterson, PhD
Year Inducted: 
Martha Peterson
  • Dean of Women at the University Of Kansas from 1951 to 1956
  • Recipient of the KU School of Education Distinguished Achievement in Education Award
  • First woman to serve on the board of directors of Exxon, Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. and Dry Dock Savings Bank

       Martha Peterson hailed from a rural family in Jamestown, Kansas and graduated from Salina High School. Her love of the Crimson and Blue began in 1933 when her uncle, a KU graduate, brought her to the University Of Kansas in hopes of persuading his niece to be a Jayhawker too. He succeeded, and in 1937 she graduated from KU with a degree in Mathematics and a profound respect for two other Women’s Hall of Fame inductees—Florence Black and Wealthy Babcock. Upon completing her undergraduate studies Martha Peterson began teaching in Stockton and Ellington while working on her master’s in mathematics. In 1942 she returned to KU to teach and finish writing her thesis. She had plans to pursue a Ph.D. in mathematics but Dean Malott had other ideas for her, thus began her career as an administrator.

          In 1951 she became the Dean of Women and switched her Ph.D. work to that of Educational Psychology. She served the University Of Kansas as Dean of Women until 1956 when she took on that same role at the University of Wisconsin. Peterson then became the President of Barnard College, near Colombia, New York, in 1967 and helped guide the school through some of its bleakest days. Sometime in 1975 she decided that she would not retire in New York state, and accordingly moved back to Wisconsin to work as the President of Beloit College until her retirement in 1981. Though retired Peterson never ceased being an active member of several boards such as Metropolitan Life and Exxon.

          During her career, she served as president of the American Council on Education, the Wisconsin Academy of Arts, Sciences and Letters, and the National Association of Women's Deans and Counselors. She also was chair of the Wisconsin Rhodes Scholar Committee. She is a former trustee of Chatham, Barnard and Beloit colleges and a life trustee of the University of Notre Dame. She has received honorary degrees from more than 20 institutions. In 1998 she donated her extensive collection of papers to the University Of Kansas Archives which can be accessed by clicking the website link under her photo on this page. Martha Peterson truly was a trailblazer for women in higher education and corporate America. 

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