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Mary Frances Wagley ’47

Learning chemistry front and center
December 22, 2008

When Mary Frances Wagley majored in chemistry at MIT in the mid-1940s, classroom seating was assigned, and the few women students were always given the front row. “Our professors learned the coeds’ names within the first week, which is a good way to build a relationship,” she says.

Family guests at Wagley’s 80th-birthday party include her son, James Wagley, SM ‘89, on the right.

Her MIT ties have flourished ever since. Wagley–who worked as an educator from 1950 to 1978, with time out in the ’60s to have three children–has been on close terms with all eight MIT presidents since 1944, from Karl Compton to Susan Hockfield. In 1970, she became the first woman to join the MIT Corporation, and in 1984-‘85 she served as the first female president of the MIT Alumni Association.

Wagley, a life member emeritus of the MIT Corporation, is currently an invited guest on the Athletics, Physical Education, and Recreation Visiting Committee. She has also been on visiting committees in sponsored research, nuclear engineering, chemistry, biology, the humanities, and libraries. And she served on the search committees that selected MIT presidents Paul Gray and Charles Vest.

The daughter of retailer J. C. Penney, Wagley decided to study at MIT partly through the influence of her high-school classmate Emily “Paddy” Wade ‘45, who was already at the Institute. One of her favorite college memories is of VE Day–May 8, 1945. “President Compton celebrated the Allied victory with us students, but then he told us to go back to class, because our skills were needed in the war effort and for postwar reconstruction,” she recalls. “I guess this was the first time I felt important.”

After graduation, Wagley studied physical chemistry at the University of Oxford, where she earned a doctorate in 1950. She says she enjoyed her education career, which included teaching chemistry at Smith College from 1950 to 1953 and serving as headmistress at St. Paul’s School for Girls in Brooklandville, MD, from 1966 to 1978. In 1953 she married physician Phillip Wagley, who died in 2000. They had three children and seven grandchildren. Daughter Anne is a human-rights lawyer in Berkeley, CA. Daughter Mary lives in Providence, RI, and produces documentary films. Son James, SM ‘89, is a mortgage banker and rancher who lives in Dallas.

At home in Cockeysville, MD, Wagley likes to spend time outdoors. “I’ve assigned myself the task of identifying all the trees in our retirement community,” she says. “It’s a never-ending project that keeps me on my toes.”