Ethel Dench Puffer

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Ethel Dench Puffer

Ethel Dench Puffer was born in Framingham, Massachusetts, the eldest of four daughters. Her family was of native New England stock and highly educated by the standard of the era. After graduating from Smith College in 1891 at the age of 19 and teaching high school for one year in New Hampshire, Puffer returned to Smith as an instructor of mathematics, where she taught for the next three years while developing a keen interest in psychology.

In 1895, Puffer traveled to Germany to study aesthetics under Hugo Münsterberg (1863-1916), then a professor of psychology at the University of Freiberg. On the strength of her research, she was awarded a fellowship for graduate study by the Association of Collegiate Alumnae.

Enrolling in Radcliffe College in 1897 and working again under Münsterberg at Harvard University, she earned a certificate stating she had completed work equivalent to that of a doctoral candidate for the Harvard Ph.D.

Hugo Münsterberg
Hugo Münsterberg

Because of the restrictions against granting the Harvard degree to women, however, Puffer was forced to make a special appeal to Radcliffe to grant her the doctoral degree. In 1902, she was one of the first four women to be offered the Radcliffe Ph.D.

Restricted from many research opportunities because of her gender, Puffer returned to teaching psychology at Radcliffe, Wellesley, and Simmons Colleges, and published a book, The Psychology of Beauty, in 1905, based on her research in aesthetics. In 1908, her marriage to Benjamin Howes further impacted her career due to cultural norms of the period which did not permit married women to work outside of the home.

She continued to write scholarly articles through her forties while raising two children. Puffer’s published reflections of the role of women and the conflict between marriage and career in the Atlantic Monthly in 1922 brought attention to one of the basic dilemmas confronting educated women of that time.

Benjamin Howes
Benjamin Howes

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