Ruth Hubbard ’45, the first woman to receive tenure as a biology professor at Harvard, passed away last Thursday at age 92 after a recent decline in her health.
Born in Vienna, Austria as Ruth Hoffmann on March 3, 1924, Hubbard and her family fled from the Nazi regime to the U.S. in 1938, settling in Brookline, Mass. Dr. Hubbard remained in the Cambridge area, with her professional career focused at Harvard, for the rest of her life.
Hubbard, who received tenure in 1973, rose to the forefront of her field in an era when women faced obstacles in academic science. She made important discoveries about the biochemistry and photochemistry of vision in the 1940s through 1960s in the laboratory of Nobel-prize winning biologist George Wald, who was also Hubbard’s second husband.
Molecular and Cellular Biology professor John E. Dowling worked with Hubbard as a student researcher in the Wald lab. He wrote about her contributions to the field and personal qualities in a statement emailed to the MCB department this week.
“Ruth Hubbard was a superb scientist who contributed substantially to our understanding of photoreceptors and their light-sensitive visual pigment molecules,” Dowling wrote. “She was a wonderful mentor and colleague.”
Hubbard was also known for her political activism and her feminist critique of academic science that she began to develop in the early 1970s.
Nancy Krieger, a professor of Social Epidemiology at the School of Public Health, first met Hubbard in 1977 as a student at Radcliffe in Hubbard’s class on biology and women’s issues.
“What Ruth did was she taught me both to think critically about science and also to do science critically, and always to challenge whenever biology was used for an excuse for injustice,” Krieger said.
Hubbard’s children noted her dedication to mentoring students.
“She truly was a mentor to a generation of progressives, feminists, and LGBT students at Harvard, and that meant a lot to her,” Deborah H. Wald, Hubbard’s daughter, said.
Hubbard’s son, Elijah Wald, a Grammy Award-winning folk blues guitarist and music historian, said his mother was passionate about teaching.
“She was very much a teacher, not just in the classroom. She liked counseling people, she liked giving advice,” he said. “ She was genuinely interested in people. She was somebody who people who knew her would tend to come to with their problems.”
Hubbard is survived by her foster brother, Benjamin Goldstein; her son, Elijah Wald; her daughter, Deborah H. Wald; and her two grandsons, Ezekiel and Oliver.
A memorial celebration will be held in the spring, according to Hubbard’s family.
—Staff writer Stephen M. Gillinov can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @StephenGillinov.