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Home : Volume 23 : Summer 1997 :
Famed author Hahn broke ground as early female Mining Engineering graduate

Emily Hahn

Emily Hahn
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Emily Hahn never intended to pursue a degree in mining engineering. As a 17-year-old freshman in the College of Letters and Science in 1922, she simply wanted to take a chemistry course offered only to engineering students. When the dean of her college refused to grant a waiver, she switched to an engineering major out of spite, fully intending to return to her liberal arts curriculum the following semester.

However, as a new engineering student Hahn was met with great resistance from the all-male faculty and student body, which even appealed to the state legislature to have her barred from enrolling. (The legislature refused.) This was opposition from which Hahn couldn't back down. "Like many young people in my day," she wrote in her 1970 autobiography, "I was bristling with principles, eager to find abuses in the world and burning to do away with them." Four years later, in the spring of 1926, she became one of the first women to receive a bachelor of science degree in engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
"My career as a mining engineer has this much in common with many success stories -- it was founded on an accident. Otherwise there is no comparison, because it is not a success story. As an engineer, I have been a flop ..."

From Emily Hahn's 1970 autobiography, Times and Places, a Memoir

After earning her diploma, Hahn worked briefly for a St. Louis lead and zinc mining company where, because of her sex, she was only allowed to do filing and other office work. With a thirst to see the world, she soon moved to New Mexico to work as a tour guide, then to New York, and later to London where she did research for an American author.

Hahn went on to become a world traveler and prolific writer, documenting her experiences from around the globe in 52 books as well as 181 pieces for The New Yorker. Her writing career spanned eight decades and every continent.

In recent years she devoted much of her time to writing about wildlife preservation and monkeys. For her scholarly work on primate intelligence and animal communication, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

An article published in the March 10, 1997 edition of The New Yorker describes Hahn as "a woman deeply, almost domestically, at home in the world . . . She knew the famous and the powerful but was more at home in the company of bartenders and cabdrivers, unpublished writers, widows and nurses' aides, as well as her nieces and nephews, her daughters, and her four beloved sisters."

This spring, Hahn passed away at age 92 -- almost 71 years after her gender-breaking feat at UW-Madison.

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