History of the School

A Department of Home Economics was first established at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1903. Since then it has undergone numerous name and status changes, most recently becoming the School of Human Ecology in 1997.


In 1895, at the invitation of economics professor Richard T. Ely, Helen Campbell, author, reformer and home economist, presented a series of lectures at the University that was published in 1897 as Household Economics: A Course of Lectures in the School of Economics of the University of Wisconsin. In subsequent years, the women’s clubs throughout the state, the University Board of Regents, and the governor’s wife, Belle Case La Follette, all promoted the establishment of a department of home economics, which the state legislature funded in the spring of 1903. Caroline Hunt was appointed the first Professor of Home Economics on 16 June 1903. She ardently defended home economics as a rigorous scientific education for women. Hunt insisted that students complete at least one year of college chemistry before their admission to the program and at least 47 credits of science courses for graduation. Classes in home economics began in January 1904 in South Hall. Disenchantment with the program and the work of Hunt led to a reorganization of home economics at the University in 1908. Hunt was fired and the program was transferred from the College of Letters and Science to the College of Agriculture, where it was typically housed in other land-grant universities of the period.


In September 1909 classes resumed under the directorship of Abby L. Marlatt. She dramatically transformed the Department of Home Economics during her tenure (1909 – 1939), as enrollments grew from 52 to 605. Marlatt expanded from one week to two the “Housekeepers’ Conferences,” or short courses, that Hunt had instituted in 1905, offering lectures, demonstrations, and laboratory practice for non-University students. In 1911, the University purchased a small house located across the street from Agriculture Hall for the home economics students to use as a Practice Cottage. Three years later, the Home Economics and Extension Building was opened at 1300 Linden Drive. Although students had been involved in experiments from as early as 1908, the 1914 appointment of Dr. Amy Daniels marked the beginning of institutionalized home economics research at the University of Wisconsin. Student organizations such as the Euthenics Club, Omicron Nu and Phi Upsilon Omicron were established. Home economics students and staff did not isolate themselves from the needs of the University and the larger community. The Department created the Dorothy Roberts Nursery School in response to a request from a group of neighborhood mothers in 1926. At the same time, the curriculum was expanded with the development of specialized majors such as foods and nutrition, textiles, applied bacteriology, related art, and home economics journalism, and the formation of a lunchroom to provide students with institutional management.


When Frances Zuill succeeded Abby Marlatt as Director of Home Economics at the University of Wisconsin in 1939, she continued to develop and expand the thriving program. With funding from the Wisconsin Utilities Association, the University replaced the Practice Cottage with the purpose-built Home Management House, situated next to the Home Economics Building. In University reorganization, the Department of Home Economics became the School of Home Economics within the College of Agriculture and Zuill was named Associate Dean of the College. In addition, reflecting changes in home economics both on the University campus and nationally, the School was organized into four departments: Clothing & Textiles, Foods & Nutrition, Home Management & Family Living, and Related Art; a fifth department, Home Economics Education and Extension, was added in 1955, and new majors were instituted in subsequent years.


Following Zuill’s retirement in 1961, the School underwent a series of dramatic transformations. In 1968, the Department of Foods and Nutrition was removed from the School and placed in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. The same year, the School’s name was changed from the School of Home Economics to the School of Family Resources and Consumer Sciences, a recognition of the redefinition of the field evident throughout the nation. Dr. William H. Marshall was named Director of the School of Family Resources and Consumer Sciences in 1969, the first male to head home economics on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. In another recognition of the changing mission of home economics, the Home Management House was discontinued as a live-in practice house in 1970 and was converted into office space and classrooms. In 1973 Marshall was dismissed from his administrative post, and the School was moved out of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and was reconstituted as an independent unit within the University.


In 1974, the School was once again reorganized, this time into five departments: Child and Family Studies; Consumer Science; Environment and Design (later Environment, Textiles and Design); Home Economics Education; and Home Economics Communications. In September of that year, Dr. Elizabeth Simpson was named Dean of the School of Family Resources and Consumer Sciences. The School celebrated its 75th anniversary with a gala event at the Sheraton Inn in 1979. A graduate student of the School, Grace Tonge, published Ten Dynamic Women with funding from the Meta Schroeder Beckner Homemaker Fund. One of the women featured in this 1984 publication was nutritionist. Following Dean Simpson’s tenure, Dr. Hamilton McCubbin was appointed Dean of the School in 1985. The field continued to evolve nationally and on the University of Wisconsin campus, and in 1996 the School was once again renamed–the School of Human Ecology. In 1999, with the resignation of Dean McCubbin, Robin A. Douthitt was named interim dean, an appointment made permanent two years later. Dean Douthitt led four academic departments and several research centers. She directed a budget of more than $10 million and successfully launched a much-needed project to greatly enlarge and renovate the historic Human Ecology building.