Skip to Content
MIT News magazine

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.”

Keep Reading

Most Popular

transplant surgery
transplant surgery

The gene-edited pig heart given to a dying patient was infected with a pig virus

The first transplant of a genetically-modified pig heart into a human may have ended prematurely because of a well-known—and avoidable—risk.

Muhammad bin Salman funds anti-aging research
Muhammad bin Salman funds anti-aging research

Saudi Arabia plans to spend $1 billion a year discovering treatments to slow aging

The oil kingdom fears that its population is aging at an accelerated rate and hopes to test drugs to reverse the problem. First up might be the diabetes drug metformin.

Yann LeCun
Yann LeCun

Yann LeCun has a bold new vision for the future of AI

One of the godfathers of deep learning pulls together old ideas to sketch out a fresh path for AI, but raises as many questions as he answers.

images created by Google Imagen
images created by Google Imagen

The dark secret behind those cute AI-generated animal images

Google Brain has revealed its own image-making AI, called Imagen. But don't expect to see anything that isn't wholesome.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.