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Jane Stafford
(1899 – 1991)

Jane Stafford began work for Science Service in 1928 as medical staff writer, involved with the “[p]opularization of medical sciences.”(1) For the next three decades, Stafford’s writing covered such timely topics as polio, cancer, heart disease, influenza, vitamins, and sexually transmitted diseases. In addition, Stafford wrote a regular newspaper syndicated feature, “Your Health – Here’s How.”

Prior to joining Science Service, Stafford earned a Bachelor of Arts degree with a major in chemistry from Smith College (1920). She worked as a chemical technician in Evanston Hospital from 1922 until 1925. It was there, she would later say, that she gathered useful first-hand experience with clinical medicine.

Due to family obligations, Stafford left her technician job and relocated. When seeking new work, she decided to return to writing, an activity she had loved since the age of six. She had also studied English at Smith, feeling E.G. Conklin’s courses in particular had helped her writing. Initially, she found it quite difficult to secure a job; however, the direction of an employment bureau run by women’s sorority Theta Sigma Phi led her to a job as an assistant editor. She held this position at Hygeia, the popular health publication of the American Medical Association, from 1925 until 1927. Work at Hygeia, she claimed, exposed her to new medical knowledge and the editorial aspects of magazine publishing; it also “indoctrinated [her] in the ethics and principles of popular writing on medicine.”(2)

When Science Service 's medical writer, Marjorie MacDill, resigned, Director Watson Davis contacted Stafford’s editor at Hygeia, asking if he could recommend “a man who can handle our medical and health articles.”(3) Soon thereafter, Stafford joined Science Service.

During her tenure at Science Service, Stafford made consistent efforts to engage with other journalists, especially those in science and medicine. She helped to found the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) and served as its president in 1945. Stafford was also president of the Women’s National Press Club (1949-1950) in Washington, a member of the White House Correspondents’ Association, American Public Health Association, Potomac Hunt Club, and an associate of Theta Sigma Phi.(4)

In the 1930s and 1940s, Watson Davis demonstrated considerable confidence and trust in Stafford, as he consulted her about administrative matters and nominated her for various awards. In 1946, her work in journalism earned her the Westinghouse Science Writing Award. In 1955 she won the Press Association of the American Heart Association’s Howard W. Blakeslee Award for “[a]rticles that contributed most effectively to public understanding of progress in the prevention, care and treatment of heart and circulatory diseases.”(5) That award was named in honor of an early, well known science journalist, who had also been Stafford’s friend and competitor.(6)

After nearly thirty years, Stafford left Science Service in late 1956 to work for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). For about fifteen years, she served as assistant for research reports in the NIH Office of Research Information, which collected, prepared, and disseminated information related to the medical and biological sciences.(7) As late as 1970, she was still active in science journalism, serving on the Managing Committee for the AAAS-Westinghouse Science Writing Awards.(8)

Later in life Stafford stated in an oral history interview that being a woman within the predominantly male institutions of science journalism and science had had little impact on her experiences as a science writer, citing only a difference in pay.(9) However, the Science Service records reveal that gender-based barriers were present and that both Stafford and Davis made some effort to combat them.

During Stafford's early years at Science Service, for example, Washington social organizations such as the Cosmos Club and Harvard Club enforced a "men only" policy. Stafford was often barred from attending meetings there. With regard to an upcoming journalism award luncheon in a New York City club in 1938, Davis expressed his frustration at Stafford’s exclusion, declaring that this “sex discrimination” was far from one isolated case.(10)

Both Stafford and Davis were also asked to use their positions in the media to raise public awareness of female scientists. For instance, in 1956 Independent Woman asked Stafford to write about women who had chosen science as a career. In particular, the editor asked her to focus on “scientific work for the peaceful and constructive use of nuclear energy.” Stafford’s article discussed “[t]he small band of pioneers who showed that women could make contributions” to science.(11) In 1951, Davis devoted an episode of his radio show Adventures in Science to the topic of “Women in Engineering.”(12) Another Adventures in Science episode, titled “Woman-Made Mold Chemical to Fight Disease” (1950), featured Dr. Mildred Rebstock, interviewed by Stafford. Correspondence prior to the broadcast and the broadcast transcripts themselves show that Davis and Stafford encouraged Rebstock to comment on “science as a career for women” and to discuss whether it was “compatible with a normal feminine life including marriage, etc.” This then became part of the on-air interview’s focus, presenting Rebstock as a “success story.”(13)

As did many others at this time, Stafford in her coverage often emphasized the "feminine" qualities of exemplary scientists who were women. Youth, a positive description of physical characteristics, as well as an active family life (i.e., a husband and possibly children), or perhaps a proclivity for gardening were included frequently in stories about the scientific excellence of these women. For example, press coverage of an event led by Stafford and held to honor a woman about to embark upon a publishing enterprise described the woman as follows, “Although young Mrs. Cowles speaks quietly, is slender and feminine in appearance, she gives the impression of a person of forthright purpose and determination—determination to make her new magazine succeed if hard work and careful planning are what it takes.”(14)

The inclusion of this type of character information mirrors a trend scholars have noticed in their studies of women in science during this period.(15) One survey of a range of mass-circulation monthly magazines in the post-war era (1946-58) found a tendency toward the juxtaposition of femininity/domesticity and excellence in the public sphere (or public success)and argues that the mention of domestic or feminine ‘accomplishment’ served as a reminder of the continued integrity of traditional gender distinctions.(16)

Another explanation for the prevalence of stories depicting women’s success in this manner may be the international political situation during this period. Many scholars have noted the appeal and demand for women in traditionally male professions during World War II. These appeals often contained reassuring signals that women could and did retain their "feminine" roles. One scholar points to the Cold War as a time when many individuals and institutions in the United States also wished to emphasize the "equality of opportunity" and "individual achievement" of all Americans, thus contrasting “the autonomous individuals of the ‘free world’ with the suppressed masses under communism.”(17)

Although Stafford may not have fit the traditional model for scientists and science writers at this time, historian Bruce Lewenstein notes that Stafford’s career matches the trajectory of another group of professionals during this period. This group worked or wrote for both the science and public sectors—they were concerned with scientific development as well as an informed public. Many of the individuals cited as founders of science journalism are representative of this trend, including Jane Stafford, who worked first in the laboratory, then as a science writer for Science Service, and finally in a public information position at NIH. These individuals and their institutions constituted an essential element of an emergent system for public communication of science and technology in the twentieth century.(18)


(1) Accession 90-105, Box 21, Folder “Jane Stafford, Science Service Staff” (1 of 2), Biography in American Men of Science (eighth edition) (Lancaster, PA: The Science Press, 1949).

(2) Accession 90-105, Box 21, Folder “Jane Stafford, Science Service Staff” (2 of 2), biography dated 8/11/54; Bruce V. Lewenstein, National Association of Science Writers, Oral History, Jane Stafford, interview transcript of February 6, 1987.

(3) Record Unit 7091, Box 97, Folder 10, letter dated May 18, 1928, from Watson Davis to Dr. Maurice Fishbein. Note: This was a typographical error; Dr. Fishbein’s first name was Morris.

(4) Ibid. Theta Sigma Phi, founded in 1909 as The Honorary National Fraternity of Women in Journalism, is now known as The Association for Women in Communications (AWC).

(5) Record Unit 7091, Box 320, Folder 3.

(6) Bruce V. Lewenstein, National Association of Science Writers, Oral History, Jane Stafford, interview transcript of February 6, 1987. See especially p. 33.

(7) "News of Science, News Briefs," Science, New Series, Volume 124, No. 3235, pp. 1288-1289.

(8) "AAAS Officers, Committees, and Representatives for 1970," Science, New Series, Volume 167, No. 3921, pp. 1154-1157.

(9) Bruce V. Lewenstein, National Association of Science Writers, Oral History, Jane Stafford, interview transcript of February 6, 1987. See especially pp. 47-48.

(10) Record Unit 7091, Box 192, Folder 14, series of letters between Clifton Read, C.C. Little, Watson Davis, Jane Stafford, and Susan M. Wood.

(11) Record Unit 7091, Box 327, Folder 2.

(12) See Record Unit 7091, Box 399, Folder 29.

(13) Record Unit 7091, Box 397, Folder 38, letter dated March 13, 1950, from Jane Stafford to Dr. Mildred C. Rebstock. See also radio transcript, notes, and additional correspondence in this folder.

(14) "Washington Colleagues Fete Women Publishers," The Christian Science Monitor, October 25, 1949, p. 13.

(15) Marcel C. Lafollette, "Eyes on the Stars: Images of Women Scientists in Popular Magazines," Science, Technology, & Human Values, Volume 13, no. 3⁄4 (1988), pp. 262-275, see especially p. 267.

(16) Joanne Meyerowitz, "Beyond the Feminine Mystique: A Reassessment of Postwar Mass Culture, 1946-1958," The Journal of American History, Volume 79, No. 4, pp. 1455-1482.

(17) Ibid., see especially p. 1465. (18) Bruce V. Lewenstein, "A Survey of Public Communication of Science Activities in the United States," in Bernard Schiele, ed., When Science Becomes Culture (Boucherville, Quebec: University of Ottawa Press, 1994), pp. 119-178.

(18) Thanks to Bruce Lewenstein, Lynne Friedmann, and Diane McGurgan for their assistance in locating one of the sources for this portion of the exhibit.

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