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Catherine Hurt Middlecamp

  • Born: June 25, 1950, Queens, New York

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0638
Interview Dates: December 10, 2008 and December 11, 2008
Location: University of Wisconsin, Madison, Madison, Wisconsin
Interviewer: Hilary Domush
No. of pages: 93
Minutes: 209

  Abstract of Interview

Catherine Hurt Middlecamp was born in Queens, New York, though she grew up in Garden City, New York.  Hers was a family of teachers and so Middlecamp wanted to be a teacher as well.  She loved school, was active in many sports, and played the piccolo in the band and orchestra.  In 1968, she wanted to go to college at Princeton, Harvard, or Yale, but at that time, women were not admitted to these schools.  Instead, she selected Cornell University, where women made up about one-fifth of the undergraduate student body.  In 1971, when Princeton began to admit women, an administrator attempted to lure Middlecamp away from Cornell, but she was no longer interested.  She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Cornell with a BA and a major in chemistry.  She intended to teach high school, but her mentor, Professor James Burlitch, encouraged her to attend graduate school.  In addition, she was selected as a Danforth Fellow for graduate study at any institution of her choice.

Middlecamp chose to do her graduate study in chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison), where she entered Robert West’s research lab on organosilicon chemistry.  Though only about 15 percent of the doctoral students at UW-Madison were women, women composed about one-third to one-half of West’s lab, one of the reasons she selected this group.  While working in West’s lab, she had the opportunity to teach a real-world chemistry class designed by her advisor. During her college years, she was a social activist, joining with others to speak out against nuclear weapons and the arms race of the Cold War; more than once she was arrested with the Catholic Worker Community of Iowa.  Just as she left graduate school, she married.

After finishing her Ph.D., Middlecamp served for a year as a Danforth Teaching Intern at Knox College.  In 1977, she took her first faculty position at Hobart & William Smith Colleges.  Realizing that she would not get tenure there because of the economic times (and that the woman before her had not gotten tenure), she and her husband moved back to Madison, Wisconsin.  There she taught as a lecturer in the Chemistry Tutorial Program for Minority/Disadvantaged students, later named the Chemistry Learning Center; in 1989 she became its Director.

Building on the Robert West course she taught in graduate school, Middlecamp developed (and still teaches) a general chemistry course for non-science majors, Chemistry in Context.  Students in the course use the textbook of the same name, which was developed as a national curriculum reform project of the American Chemical Society; in 2007, Middlecamp was appointed the Editor-in-Chief of this national curriculum reform project.  With a Navajo colleague, she designed and taught the first chemistry course at the UW-Madison to meet the ethnic studies requirement, Uranium and American Indians.
In 2003, she sought a faculty line with tenure in the Chemistry department but was turned down.  At about the same time, though, she was invited to teach in the Integrated Liberal Studies (ILS) program, a long-standing interdisciplinary certificate program on campus, teaching a course on radioactivity, The Radium Girls and The Firecracker Boys.  In the ILS Program, Middlecamp found an intellectual and social home (shortly after this oral history interview she was elected as its chair).

The interview concludes with Middlecamp’s views on teaching versus research, which she believes is a false dichotomy; what she believes are the many nefarious ways in which women are seen as unserious scholars; the undervaluation and dismissal of women and teaching; and the inherent difficulties of the tenure system.  She talks about her grant from the National Science Foundation—one that seeks, from her perspective, a 21st century science curriculum for a 21st century planet.  She also speaks of her Master’s degree in counseling psychology and her practice of the martial art of aikido.  She believes that as the world becomes ever more interconnected, so must academic disciplines.


1972 B.A., Chemistry, Cornell University
1976 Ph.D., Inorganic Chemistry, University of Wisconsin, Madison
1989 M.S., Counseling Psychology and Counselor Education, University of Wisconsin, Madison

  Professional Experience

Knox College

1976 - 1977

Danforth Teaching Intern, Chemistry

Hobart and William Smith Colleges

1977 - 1979

Assistant Professor, Department of Chemistry

University of Wisconsin-Madison

1979 - 1983

Lecturer, Department of Chemistry

University of Wisconsin-Madison

1979 - 1983

Chemistry and Biology Instructor, Summer Opportunity Program for Minority Students

University of Wisconsin-Madison

1979 - 1988

Associate Director, Chemistry Learning Center

University of Wisconsin-Madison

1983 - 1985

Instructor, Chemistry, Minority Middle School Summer Enrichment Program

University of Wisconsin-Madison

1984 - 1987

Associate Faculty Associate, Department of Chemistry

University of Wisconsin-Madison

1985 - 1989

Senior Instructor, Chemistry, Minority Middle School Summer Enrichment Program

University of Wisconsin-Madison

1987 - 1999

Faculty Associate, Department of Chemistry

University of Wisconsin-Madison

1988 - present

Director, Chemistry Learning Center

University of Wisconsin-Madison

1989 - 1993

Program Coordinator, Chemistry, Minority Middle School Summer Enrichment Program

University of Wisconsin-Madison

2000 - present

Distinguished Faculty Associate, Department of Chemistry

University of Wisconsin-Madison

2004 - present

Joint governance appointment, Integrated Liberal Studies Program

University of Wisconsin-Madison

2009 - present

Chair, Integrated Liberal Studies Program

University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana


Visiting Professor, Department of Chemistry



Phi Beta Kappa

1972 - 1976

Fellowship for graduate study, Danforth Foundation


Sigma Xi


Norman Basset Award for Outstanding Achievement in Student Services


Wisconsin Alumni Association Award for Excellence in Leadership


University of Wisconsin, Madison Teaching Academy


Pharmacia Award for Excellence in the Teaching of Chemistry


Distinguished member, National Society of Collegiate Scholars


Women Chemists Committee of the American Chemical Society Regional Award for Diversity


Fellow, Association for Women in Science


University of Wisconsin System Alliant Energy/Underkofler Excellence in Teaching Award


Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science

2003 - 2004

University of Wisconsin System Teaching Scholar


American Chemical Society Award for Encouraging Women into Careers in the Chemical Sciences


Judith S. Craig Distinguished Service Award, College of Letters & Science


Fellow, American Chemical Society

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Early Years 1

Childhood in Queens, New York.  Family background.  Childhood activities. Science-of-the-Month club.  School.  Wanting to be teacher.

College Years 11

Matriculated into Cornell University.  James Burlitch as mentor.  Admissions standards at Cornell.  Liked both physics and chemistry.  Chose chemistry for major.  BA degree because she did not want to be “science nerd”.  Protesting at Cornell.  Conditions for university women in the 1960s.  Played piccolo in Princeton University marching band.

Graduate School Years 16

Wins Danforth Foundation scholarship.  Enters University of Wisconsin-Madison for PhD.  Works in Robert West’s lab.  Discusses percentages of women in chemistry and in West’s lab.  Reasons why women do not succeed in chemistry.  West’s class in real-world chemistry.  Cannot play in marching band.  History of science classes with Aaron Ihde.  Discusses “hippie” culture of times and effect on West’s lab.  Meets her husband in graduate school.

After Graduate School 25

Placed by Danforth at Knox College; teaches basic chemistry.  Moves to Hobart and William Smith Colleges.  No tenured women there, so returns to University of Wisconsin.  Worked in and then became director of Chemistry Learning Center.  Eventually given course for non-chemistry majors.  Drafted to author team for Chemistry in Context.  Teaches class to go with book.  Importance of writing well.  Ethnic studies class.  Denied tenure in chemistry; moves to Integrated Liberal Studies (ILS).  More discussion of women in chemistry; importance of good teaching vs. research.  Obtains National Science Foundation grant for Mobilizing Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education for a Sustainable Future.

General Thoughts 64

Balancing career and family.  Aikido instructor.  Obtains MS in counseling psychology in order to counsel students.  More about women in science.  Image of science is reality.  Tenure.  Levels of teaching.  Importance of ability to communicate, understand, observe in order to teach well.  Recruiting for ILS.  Complicated world demands integrated disciplines.  ILS her intellectual and social home.  Modeling her perseverance.

Index 83

  About the Interviewers

Hilary Domush

Hilary Domush was a Program Associate in the Center for Oral History at CHF from 2007-2015. Previously, she earned a BS in chemistry from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine in 2003.  She then completed an MS in chemistry and an MA in history of science both from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Her graduate work in the history of science focused on early nineteenth-century chemistry in the city of Edinburgh, while her work in the chemistry was in a total synthesis laboratory.  At CHF, she worked on projects such as the Pew Biomedical Scholars, Women in Chemistry, Atmospheric Science, and Catalysis

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