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Ada Comstock, seated, in a long light-colored, pleated dress.

Ada Comstock, undated photo. Comstock was a University of Minnesota student (1892-94), rhetoric faculty member (1899-1912), and first dean of women (1907-12).

Women scholars in the spotlight

Comstock lecture spotlights pioneers in two centuries

By Gayla Marty

From Brief, November 9, 2005

In 1905, Ada Comstock--soon to become dean of women at the young University of Minnesota on the Mississippi--was teaching rhetoric. Born in western Minnesota and a regent's daughter, she was described by historian James Gray as moving across the "decorous yet lively and hopeful" campus with a high collar that jabbed at her chin and sandburs gathering around the hem of her long skirt.

A century later, buildings on three campuses are a testament to Comstock's legacy as a champion of women in higher education. One is a residence hall on the east bank of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. Another is in the Quad at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, where Comstock served as dean. A third is at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which merged in 1999 with Radcliffe. Comstock served as Radcliffe's president from 1923 to 1943, working tirelessly for full educational opportunity and responsibility for women. She would remain engaged in academic life for almost 30 years more, until her death at 97.

Ada Comstock Distinguished Women Scholars Lecture

"Caught in Cultural Crosswinds: The Promise and Pitfall of Stem Cell Research"

Catherine Verfaillie, professor and director
U of M Stem Cell Institute
Tuesday, Nov. 15
7:30 p.m.
Cowles Auditorium
Humphrey Institute
301 19th Ave. S.

Contact the Office of University Women at or 612-625-9837.

This year, the University of Minnesota will introduce a new lecture series to highlight Comstock's intellectual legacy. One of the world's leading medical researchers, U of M professor Catherine Verfaillie, will speak about her own life's work--stem cell research on the frontiers of medicine and bioethics.

The free lecture series, held twice during the school year, is the creation of the Office for University Women, the Office of the Vice Provost for Faculty and Academic Affairs, the Graduate School, and University Libraries. It will honor the exceptional research, scholarship, and leadership of female University of Minnesota faculty who are recipients of prestigious honors such as the Distinguished Women's Scholar Award, the Regents Professorship, and the McKnight Distinguished Professorship.

Pioneer in the 21st century

Verfaillie is a professor of medicine, director of the University of Minnesota Stem Cell Institute, and winner of the 2003 Distinguished Women's Scholar Award. Her research centers around hemopoietic stem cells, the parent cells of blood and bone marrow, as well as mesodermal stem cells, the parent cells that form tissues such as muscle, nerve cells, bone, and cartilage.

In "Caught in Cultural Crosswinds: The Promise and Pitfall of Stem Cell Research," she'll talk about conducting controversial and groundbreaking scientific research while navigating unsettled moral and ethical terrain.

A native of Belgium, Verfaillie came to the Twin Cities campus in 1988 and rose to international renown in the area of adult stem cell research. In December 2000, she was named one of the top ten innovators for 2001 by U.S. News and World Report.

In January this year, Verfaillie announced plans to return to her alma mater, Catholic University of Leuven, by the end of 2006. In June, Catholic University and the University of Minnesota signed a stem-cell affiliation agreement to develop joint and collaborating stem cell institutes, including exchange of faculty members and students, joint research, and conferences. Verfaillie will lead Leuven's new institute and retain a part-time appointment with the University of Minnesota.

Verfaillie's list of memberships is long. It includes the American Federation for Clinical Research, American Society of Gene Therapy, American Society of Hematology, American Society of Stem Cell and Bone Marrow Transplantation, International Society for Hematotherapy and Graft Engineering, International Society of Experimental Hematology, International Bone Marrow Transplantation Registry, and Autologous Bone Marrow Transplantation Registry.

Ada Comstock forged an unexpected path from western Minnesota, unafraid of resistance to women's full role in academics. A century later, the university that shaped her as a student and again as a beginning professor has become a leader in the global community of higher education--with women like Verfaillie at the forefront.

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