Helen Taylor, J36


Helen Taylor, J36

Helen Taylor, J36

Born in Natick, Massachusetts, Helen Dobbins Taylor moved to Brighton by age three. Her father worked for the Boston Elevated Railway, now the MBTA, and encouraged her early interest in medicine. "His feeling was, whether you were a girl or a boy, you could do whatever you wanted to do if you made up your mind to do it," says Helen. Interested in attending Tufts Medical School to become a doctor, she entered Tufts College and pursued a major in chemistry, graduating as one of 60 women in the Class of 1936. Like many students attending Tufts during the Depression, Helen commuted to college all four years. That meant an hour-and-a-half trek by streetcar (car fare was 10 cents) twice a day.

Disappointed when she was not accepted to medical school, she nonetheless went on to enjoy a career as a chemist, working first as a lab technician at the Boston Dispensary (the beginning of the New England Medical Center) and in Connecticut at a mental hospital. At the onset of World War II she joined Boston Gas Company, one of the first women chemists ever hired there. At Boston Gas, she met her future husband; they were married in 1944 and settled in Medford. Together they raised three children. Since her husband's death, Helen has kept active in Tufts affairs and quilting; she indulges her passion for fabric by traveling to quilting events across the country. Her stunning creations have been displayed in local shows. In the past 25 years she has rarely missed an Alumni Weekend and can always be found at the Cavalcade of Classes under the bright blue banner for the indomitable Class of 1936.

Interview Excerpt

Helen Taylor, J36

On applying to Tufts

"I didn't even know where Tufts College was, although I had grown up in the Boston area. But I knew about the medical school, and when I inquired about the medical school they told me that I had to apply to the undergraduate college first. So that's what took me to it. I remember—I went to high school at Boston Girls Latin School—and I started there in the seventh grade. And the first question that they asked me was where did I intend to go to college. And I said I intended at that time to go to Harvard Medical School. And the teacher bristled, you know. 'Well, they'll never—they don't take women and they never will!' [Chuckles] Well, I think now there are more women in Harvard Medical School than there are men. But at the time that I was applying to medical school they still were not accepting any women. Tufts only took five, I think, that year."

On friendships

"There was kind of a curtain between the people who lived at home and those who lived at college. But, oh, all the people—I still have lots of friends I made at Tufts College, and most of them were not in my own class. I have friends who were sophomores when I was a freshman and I have friends who were freshmen when I was a senior, and I still have them and see them and talk to them a lot. These friendships were formed when we congregated in two horrible rooms in the basement of Richardson. That's where we'd meet when we had a quiet free hour. And I never did carry a lunch, but a lot of people carried theirs and then they would eat there. It was like a locker room. Thinking back, it was the pits! [Laughter]"

On compulsory chapel

"Everybody went on Wednesday, unless you had some good excuse. You could go another day. You had to sign in. They had slips—oh, about as big as a three by five card and you put your name and your class. And if, for some reason, you had to be excused on Wednesday, you had to make it up. Now, the freshmen had to go twice a week. They had to go on Wednesday with the women and on Friday the freshmen men and women both went. So both men and women were required to go twice a week as freshmen and once a week as upperclassmen."

On being a woman student interested in medicine

"I took a lot of chemistry courses; I took a lot of physics courses; and I did take quite a few biology courses. And it was all mixed in. It was strange after I left Tufts. My father was still interested in helping me to get to medical school, and we went—I went over to Boston College to see about maybe taking some more biology courses, which would help me. But oh, no. Couldn't have women. They were not taking women in the undergraduate school. They did take women in graduate school but not in biology. Oh, no, my dear. You could take some history; you could take some English. I don't know [why] but I got a kick out of it."

On trying something new

"I remember once some man invited me to a track meet and I went down and I took a couple of my women friends. We called ourselves girls in those days and that is out now. As we went into the gym some man said to me, 'Where do you think you're going?' And I said, 'I'm going to the track meet.' 'Oh, no, you're not,' he said. [Laughter] And I said, 'Well, I was invited.' 'It doesn't matter whether you were invited or not; you're not allowed in this gymnasium. Out you go!' [It was] boys only, apparently. They [boys] weren't allowed in Jackson Gym; we weren't allowed in Cousens Gym. [Laughter]"

Did anyone question authority?

"Well, probably me more than anybody else. She [Dean Bush] got my goat on a lot of things in that she was very dogmatic. It was her way or no way. She didn't really like students living at home. And she made it very hard for us sometimes. You couldn't do this; you couldn't do that. I think there were a lot more rules and regulations then than there are now. And she told me point-blank she wouldn't recommend me for medical school. And I said, 'Well, why did you let me stay here for four years with the idea?' Well, I guess she thought I would come around to her way of [laughter] thinking or something. I don't know. She didn't answer that question. I didn't stand up straight enough to suit her. Well, sorry about that. That's something that ran in the family too. [Laughter] I don't know whether I was crushed. I was mad as hell.

"Oh, well. I did resist authority, if she was the authority. Well, I don't know, about the way she treated the off-hill students, and I really started them getting these rooms cleaned up a little bit, because it was terrible. And they charged us at that time. It seems so paltry now, but it was an off-hill fee. You had to pay a fee and I asked her what the fee was for, what they were supposed to be doing with that money, that they couldn't clean up these rooms. And the only thing she did—I don't know whether she did it—but they did decide to put an off-hill representative on the student council, but it couldn't be me. The girl who did do it—a nice girl; I still hear from her once in a while. She wouldn't [do] anything, you know, and I'd say, 'Look, Hilda, say this to her.' 'No, I won't, Helen.' She said, 'I'm the representative, not you. You're not going to tell me what to tell her.' So she wouldn't recommend me. Whether that was what kept me out, I don't know, but I didn't make it. Well, in spite of my father, I wasn't the best student in the world but I did have a good time."