True Grit

Taimi Toffer Anderson (1937- ), 1956, by Science Service, Black-and-white photograph, Smithsonian In

The wealth of interesting stories in the Science Service collection never ceases to surprise and intrigue me and the image above is a wonderful example. What’s going on here? The juxtaposition of subjects is terrific—1950s teen fashion and electrophoresis—crinolines and CSI—huh? Turns out, it’s an image of Taimi Toffer, winner of the girl’s physical science division, at the 1956 National Science Fair—her sister, Kristina Toffer, was also one of the top four prize winners in 1957. An impressive achievement, right? You’re damn skippy it is.

By the time this photo was taken, Taimi Toffer, born in Estonia, had endured World War II, lived in an Austrian Displaced Persons camp following the war, and immigrated to the US with her family in 1952. Within four years, she managed to establish herself at Allentown High School, Allentown, Pennsylvania, excelling academically, and winning a national science competition. Yet, the challenges didn’t stop there.

After winning the National Science Fair, she initially enrolled at Cedar Crest College, a women’s college in Allentown, Pennsylvania, but later transferred to Muhlenberg College (also in Allentown), a formerly all-male college, during the first year it went coed. The female pioneers at Muhlenberg were not entirely welcome and put up with some nasty hazing (featured in Life Magazine, October 21, 1957, pp. 111-115). In addition to the indignities meted out to freshmen, Taimi was the only female in her chemistry class (p. 114). I daresay she was one of the most accomplished in her class. Nevertheless, she managed to navigate the sophomoric harassment and academic isolation with aplomb and triumphed once again, when she was voted Muhlenberg’s Homecoming Queen (pictured in Life Magazine, November 11, 1957, p.20).

Today, Taimi Toffer Anderson is a landscape gardener and lives in North Carolina—no doubt still following her passion wherever it leads.

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