Abby Lillian Marlatt

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Marlett, 1869-1943

Director of UW Home Economics

Abby Marlatt served as the second director of UW Home Economics. She transformed a domestic science program with declining enrollment into a nationally recognized department. Marlatt took great pride in her department and worked around-the-clock to support it. She maintained a liberal attitude toward education and insisted that home economics students take a variety of courses in order to be well-rounded. The Practice Cottage she established in 1912 became the model for schools around the globe, and the faculty she chose and supported became nationally and internationally renowned in their fields. Marlatt completely dedicated herself to UW home economics, and her complex personality served to create strong memories of her era.

Marlatt was born on March 7, 1869, in Manhattan, Kansas to a family interested in teaching, writing, and agricultural issues. She attended Kansas State Agricultural College (now Kansas State University) and earned her BS (Domestic Science) in 1888 and her MS (Domestic Economy) in 1890. (Kansas State also awarded Marlatt an honorary Doctor of Science in 1925.) Before coming to Madison, Marlatt organized a domestic economy department at Utah State Agricultural College in Logan, Utah (1890-1894), and a home economics department at the Manual Training High School in Providence, Rhode Island (1894-1909). The reputation she developed from her work at these schools caused Dean Harry L. Russell to take notice of her abilities. He requested that she come to Wisconsin to develop a department of home economics here. Marlatt joined the UW faculty in 1909 and remained until her retirement in 1939.

Marlatt developed a reputation as a stern, austere, and tough woman with an imposing physical presence and a no-nonsense attitude. Because she felt her students and faculty represented UW Home Economics at all times, she insisted on perfection from them. However, those who knew her well realized that the exterior gruffness did not accurately represent the true Abby Marlatt. According to May Reynolds, a fellow department member, Marlatt was a “marshmallow” inside. It was because she wanted the best for her department that she demanded so much of her faculty. When it came to caring for her students and faculty, Marlatt had a soft side for those who met the challenge of her personality. When the Omicron Nu scholarship lacked sufficient funds, which was nearly always, Marlatt secretly made up the difference with contributions from her own pocket. Similarly, when a student could not afford the eye surgery she needed, Marlatt quietly told her to go ahead and get the operation done; she would see to it that the bill was paid. Helen Parsons, another home economics faculty member, characterized Marlatt as a “warm-hearted, crabby person.”

Part of Marlatt’s role as director of UW Home Economics was communicating with those outside the department. She received hundreds of letters from people around the world who wanted information on the UW program or the practice cottage; who engaged her in discussions about women working in laboratory sciences; or who expressed positive or negative reactions to her actions. Marlatt answered the letters herself with well-thought-out replies. She did not mince words, include extraneous information, or fail to assert her opinion when appropriate. For example, to a letter suggesting that women do not belong in nutrition research Marlatt responded strongly:

The home economics groups throughout the country are holding very strenuously to the point that the work must be done by women for women because first, they understand the home problems better and, second, they should be given the opportunity to develop themselves in research work in applied chemistry, applied economics, or applied sociology in connection with the rural farm home.

Marlatt’s written communication with individuals and groups beyond the University allowed her both to expand the reputation of her own department and to express her beliefs regarding home economics, women in science, and women in general society.

While at UW, Marlatt frequently met with frustration and disappointment in her efforts to support home economics. She fought hard for her department, faculty, and students, and approached every new problem with optimism. However, if she encountered obstacles, her severe disappointment could cause her to relinquish her efforts. The Graduate School’s reputed dislike of home economics made Marlatt’s desire to establish UW Home Economics as an important and well-respected research department a constant battle. For example, Marlatt thought that a graduate program in biological chemistry would help retain home economics graduate students who wanted to pursue scientific research, but the Graduate School denied her request. Another blow the administration dealt Marlatt was related to the naming of the new home economics building, finished in 1914. Marlatt had thought that the building was going to be designated as “Home Economics.” However, while Marlatt was away from campus because of her father’s poor health and death, the Regents decided to call the new building “Home Economics and Extension.” When she returned, Marlatt was devastated. The building was supposed to be hers, and it was not. Too frustrated and emotionally exhausted because of her family’s recent loss, Marlatt did not fight to change the building’s name.

Nevertheless, in the face of these setbacks, Marlatt persevered and successfully achieved her goal of developing UW Home Economics into a nationally renowned department. When she arrived in 1909, there were 52 students, 12 courses, one major, one faculty member, and one assistant. The numbers from the year of her retirement, 1939, reflect the tremendous impact Marlatt had upon UW. Home economics had 602 students, 67 courses, eight majors, and 25 faculty members, and one research assistant.

Four years after her retirement, at the age of seventy-five, Marlatt died from cancer. Despite her imposing physical appearance and her disappointments, Marlatt’s strong personality, her care for her students, her continual support of her faculty, and her desire to establish Madison as a respected department of home economics left those who knew her well with fond memories and left UW with a flourishing department.