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Ellen Kohnhorst MA’57

Helen Constance White PhD’24 had a storied history at the University of Wisconsin, and she made a lasting impression on many alumni over the years. Born in 1896, White started her UW career as an English instructor in 1919, and was possibly the first woman to earn a doctorate in the UW College of Letters and Science (L&S) in 1924. She continued to blaze trails in Wisconsin after earning her degree as the first woman to become a full L&S professor in 1936.

Many of White’s graduate students called her “the Purple Goddess” in playful reference to her grape-hued wardrobe, which White said had nothing to do with her devotion to the Catholic Church, but rather made it easier for her to pack for travel. White became the first woman to chair the English Department in 1955, and taught at the UW until her death in 1967. Two years later, Helen C. White Hall was built overlooking Lake Mendota, and today it houses the English Department, College Library and various other L&S department offices.

Aside from her work as a professor, White was an accomplished author. She was named runner-up for the 1934 Pulitzer Prize for her novel A Watch in the Night, which is no longer in print. However, a number of her writings are still published today, including The Mysticism of William Blake (UW Press), Victorian Prose (Prentice Hall), Tudor Books of Private Devotion (UW Press), and Tudor Books of Saints and Martyrs (UW Press).

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