Earlier this week I came across this old Time magazine article, which reminded me of an interesting character, Dr. Theo Colborn.
Theodora Colborn (born in 1927) got her undergraduate degree in pharmacy from Rutgers University in 1947. Soon after, she married and had four children. For the next three decades, while raising the children, she and her husband owned and managed several drugstores: first in New Jersey, then 15 years later, after deciding urban life was too hectic the family moved to rural Colorado where they also kept a sheep farm.
When she was 51 and her youngest child 18, Colborn returned to school and completed her a master’s degree in fresh water ecology from Western State College of Colorado in 1981. Her husband died in 1983, and she continued on her academic path to earn a Ph.D. in zoology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1985.
With her degree, which she says changed her in the eyes of the public from a do-gooder “little old lady in tennis shoes” puttering along in environmental causes to a credentialed scientist, Dr. Colborn’s career took off. She became a prominent environmentalist who pioneered research on and subsequently promoted the theory that certain ubiquitous man-made chemicals have a serious impact on human health and especially when fetuses and newborns are exposed) and cause huge environmental damage. Holding a long list of prestigious accolades, titles and publications, Colborn (82 this year) is now professor emeritus at the University of Florida and president of the company (TEDX) she founded to disseminate research findings on endocrine disruption.
Colborn’s path is non-traditional, to say the least. I admire it for it’s natural progression. Colborn’s undergraduate pharmacy background, her family, her life-long interest in birds and in water, her experience with pollution in the streams near their Colorado sheep farm clearly contributed to her new career - still going strong after several decades - as scientist/environmentalist/academic. It’s worth thinking about mothers like Colborn who do things a little differently – stretch the system in different ways. I know very few stories of parents going back to get their Ph.D.s later in life after their families have grown up, but they are out there, and I’d love to learn more about them - do you know any to share? I’m sure there are even some stories of Ph.D. parents who managed to return to academic careers after leaving to raise children, although returning after this gap appears to be even less common than having the late-start but recent training.