13 Significant Mount Holyoke Alumnae

As a student at Mount Holyoke College, you’re probably aware of the thousands of notable alumnae that have attended the school over the past 181 years. Mount Holyoke alums have gone on to achieve outstanding things and have become scientists, writers, teachers, artists, athletes, and more. These alums have accomplished so many things and I thought it would be nice to write an article this week recognizing a handful of Mount Holyoke alumnae who have continued to make the college proud, even many years after they graduated. Check out some of these amazing alums below!


1. Emily Dickinson (MHC Class of 1848)

Emily Dickinson was a famous poet born on December 10, 1830 in Amherst, MA. Despite the fact that her family had strong ties to the community, Dickinson lived much of her life in isolation. As a child she went to school at Amherst Academy and later on attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary from 1847-1848. After leaving Mount Holyoke, Dickinson returned back home where she began writing poems. Dickinson’s poems were significant because she “experimented with expression in order to free it from conventional restraints.” Dickinson also made a new type of persona for the first person narrative, similar to that of the writer Charlotte Brontë. She wrote over 1,800 poems in her lifetime, which were not found until after she died. Her sister Lavinia discovered them in the house and decided they should be published.

During her time at Mount Holyoke, Dickinson refused to join the school’s Christian evangelical efforts. She references this in one of her poems: “Some keep the Sabbath going to church, I keep it staying home.” To see a full list of her poems, visit this website.


2. Virginia Apgar (MHC Class of 1929)

Virginia Apgar was born on June 7, 1909 in Westfield, NJ. An American obstetrical anesthesiologist, she was famously known for developing the Apgar score, which evaluates the health of newborns. Apgar attended Mount Holyoke from fall 1925 to spring 1929, where she studied zoology with minors in physiology and chemistry. After graduating from MHC, she went to Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons (aka P&S) until 1933. Here, she completed a residency in surgery. In 1949, she became the first woman to become a full professor at P&S. She invented the Apgar score in 1953. The Apgar score is calculated based on an infant’s health after one minute and five minutes after birth. If the score if low after five minutes, additional scores may be given every five minutes after that.

From 1959 to her death in 1974, Apgar worked for the March of Dimes Foundation, and served as vice president for Medical Affairs. She directed its research program to prevent birth defects.


3. Rachel Fuller Brown (MHC Class of 1920)

Rachel Fuller Brown was born on November 23, 1898 in Springfield, MA. Brown received her B.A. from Mount Holyoke. She originally intended to study History, but fell in love with Chemistry after taking a required science course at the College taught by Emma P. Carr. Brown ended up double majoring in History and Chemistry in 1920. Brown did research for the Division of Laboratories and Research of the New York State Department of Health. She was a chemist, best known for her collaboration with microbiologist Elizabeth Lee Hazen in developing the first useful antifungal antibiotic, Nystatin. Nystatin is a polyene antifungal drug to which many molds and yeast infections are sensitive. It was the first safe and effective antifungal antibiotic in treating human diseases.  

After leaving MHC, Brown worked as a laboratory assistant and then began graduate work. She earned an M.S. in organic chemistry from University of Chicago in 1921. After earning her M.S. from UChicago, Brown taught at the Frances Shimer School, a school and junior college for girls, for three years. In 1926, Brown submitted her Ph.D. thesis. Unfortunately, due to complications in scheduling oral examinations, she was forced to leave Chicago without her Ph.D. to find a job at the Division of Laboratories and Research in Albany, NY.


4. Alice Standish Allen (MHC Class of 1929)

Alice Standish Allen was born in 1907 in Boston, MA. She was the first female engineering geologist in North America. Allen was raised in Newtonville and later on in Lexington, MA. Aside from her career in geology, Allen was a fantastic piano player. Allen started her academic career at Mount Holyoke, where she earned a B.A. in Geology in 1929. After graduating from MHC, Allen earned her M.A. in Geology from Wisconsin University. From 1931 to 1936, she worked an assistant during her studies at Northwestern University.

Starting in 1936, Allen was a geological engineer for the U.S. government in Washington D.C, working at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). She was a member of the USGS Military Geology Unit, where she was one of the first affiliated members in 1942. Her work consisted of analysis and creation of topographic products. These commodities were used by the American forces during World War I. After WWI, Allen was transferred to the Engineering Geology Branch, where she was the interim representative and spokesperson.


5. Helen Pitts (MHC Class of 1859)

Helen Pitts was born in 1838 in Honeoye, NY. She was a women’s rights activist and second wife of Frederick Douglass, who was an African-American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman. His autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, became a bestseller.

Pitts was a descendant of John Alden and Priscilla Alden, who sailed to America on the Mayflower. In 1859, she graduated from Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. After the U.S. Civil War she taught at the Hampton Institute, and in 1880 she moved to Uniontown in Washington, D.C., and lived next to Frederick Douglass’ home in Cedar Hill.

Pitts was active in the women’s rights movement and co-edited The Alpha, which was a feminist newspaper at the time. Following Douglass’ death, Pitts created the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association.


6. Hortense Parker (MHC Class of 1883)

Hortense Parker was born in 1859 in Ripley, OH. Daughter of African American abolitionist, she was the first known African American and person of color to graduate from Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1883.

Parker was the fourth of six children born to the free people of color John Parker and Miranda Boulden. Her father was born into slavery and bought his freedom. He became a noted abolitionist, inventor, and industrialist. He helped hundreds of slaves escape by the Underground Railroad. Her mother, in contrast, was freeborn in Cincinnati.

From 1906-1913, Parker taught music and and piano at an elementary school in Kansas City, Missouri. After she married James Marcus Gilliam, the couple moved to St. Louis where she taught music and lived out the rest of her life there.


7. Elizabeth Eaton Converse aka Connie Converse (MHC Class of 1946)

Elizabeth Converse was born on August 3, 1924 in Laconia, NH. She was a singer and songwriter active in New York City in the 1950’s. Her work is among the earliest known recordings of the singer-songwriter genre of music. Converse grew up in Concord, NH, as the middle child in a strict Baptist family. Her dad was a minister and her mom was musical. She graduated from Concord High School, where she was valedictorian and won eight academic awards, which included an academic scholarship to Mount Holyoke College.

Converse was only at Mount Holyoke for two years before she left for New York City. In NY, she developed the name “Connie” and worked for the Academy Photo Offset in New York’s Flatiron District. Converse began writing songs and performed them only for friends, accompanied by a guitar. It was around this time she began drinking and smoking and she experienced depression.

Her only known public performance was a brief TV appearance in 1954 on The Morning Show on CBS with Walter Cronkite. Converse’s only album is available for purchase and on YouTube, Pandora, and Spotify, titled How Sad, How Lovely (2009). Her most popular songs include “Father Neptune”, “We Lived Alone”, and “Talkin’ Like You.


8. Zeb Bangash (MHC Class of 2004)

Zeb Bangash was born on June 26, 1982 in Kohat, Pakistan. Her family was originally from Khyber, Pakhtunkhwa. She’s known for being part of Pakistani music duo Zeb and Haniya. Bangash began her music career with her cousin Haniya Aslam, and their debut album, Chup! was released in 2008.

Bangash made her Bollywood debut in 2013 when she did a song for the film Madras Cafe. Her career continued after she left to attend college in Canada. She also has recorded songs for the soundtrack Highway (2014), Bin Roye (2015), Ho Mann Jahaan (2015), Manto (2015), and Fitoor (2016). Bangash attended both Smith College and Mount Holyoke College; she graduated from MHC in 2004.


9. Esther Howland (MHC Class of 1847)

Esther Howland was born on August 17, 1828 in Worcester, MA. Her parents were Southworth Allen Holland and Esther Allen Howland. Her mother was the author of a cookbook titled The New England Economical Housekeeper and Family Receipt Book which was published in 1844 by her husband. Howland’s father, Southworth, operated S.A. Howland & Sons, the largest book and stationary store in Worcester.

Howland graduated from Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1847 at the age of nineteen. Although Mount Holyoke didn’t officially celebrate Saint Valentine’s Day, students secretly exchanged poems written on pieces of paper.

Shortly after she graduated from Mount Holyoke, Howland received a Valentine’s Day card from a business associate of her father’s. It was decorated with lace and cut out ornate flowers. At the time, fancy and elaborate Valentine’s Day cards were imported from Europe and not affordable to many Americans. Howland was determined to make a better a better Valentine’s. She asked her father to order her supplies from New York City and England, made samples for her salesman, and was delighted when she had $5,000 of orders. She later on employed friends to help her make the cards using an assembly line. Her first advertisement appeared in Worcester Spy, a newspaper, in 1850. Eventually, Howland became a businesswoman and began receiving imports from Germany. Many of her card designs are still used today.


10. Michele Drolet (MHC Class of 1976)

Michele Drolet was born in 1954. She became legally blind as an infant, but it didn’t stop her from achieving her greatest moments. She graduated from Mount Holyoke in 1976, and went on to become a cross country skier. Drolet was the was the first American to ever earn a Paralympic cross-country skiing medal (bronze) at the 1994 Winter Paralympic Games in Norway. Her time in the 5K freestyle was 30 seconds away from winning a silver medal.

Drolet has gone on in life to help others with disabilities, serving as the manager of community relations for The Seeing Eye Inc., a guide dog training center in Morristown, N.J


11. Jean Picker Firstenberg (MHC Class of 1958)

Jean Picker Firstenberg was born in 1936. She’s the daughter of Eugene Picker, former president of Loew’s movie theaters, and sister of David V. Picker, the vice president of Lorimar Films. She’s now the Director and CEO of the American Film Institute.

Firstenberg graduated from Mount Holyoke in 1958, and afterwards attended the Boston University College of Communication. Following college, she hoped to become a sports announcer and took a job as the assistant to the president of WMGM-AM in New York. Then in 1964 she worked for the Democratic National Committee, organized the US participation in the 1965 Moscow Film Festival, and became assistant producer of public affairs TV programs on WRC-TV in Washington. Firstenberg eventually moved to Princeton, NJ, and joined Princeton University’s communications office, becoming director after some time.


12. Susan Kare (MHC Class of 1975)

Susan Kare was born on February 5, 1954 in Ithaca, NY. Her sister is Jordin Kare, a renowned  aerospace engineer. Susan Kare graduated from Harriton High School in 1971, and graduated from Mount Holyoke in 1975 with a B.A. in Art. Later on she received a Ph.D. from New York University in 1978.

Kare is known as the original designer of many of the interface elements for the original Apple Macintosh computer in the 1980’s; she joined Apple Computer after getting a call from high school friend Andy Hertzfeld in the early 1980’s. She’s a member of the original Apple Macintosh design team, and later on in her career became a Creative Director in Apple Creative Services working for the Director, Tom Suiter.

She’s the designer of many typefaces, icons, and original marketing material for the original Macintosh operating system. Descendants of her work can be seen in the graphics tools, especially in the icons Lasso, the Grabber, and the Paint Bucket. Kare left Apple and joined NeXT as a designer, working with clients like Microsoft and IBM.


13. Nancy M. Hill (MHC Class of 1859)


Nancy M. Hill was born on November 19, 1833 in Boston, MA. She was well educated and attended Mount Holyoke, graduating in the class of 1859. She served as a volunteer nurse during the American Civil War, working at the Armory Square Hospital in Washington, D.C. After the war ended, Hill was inspired by her nursing experience to study for a medical degree and was accepted into the University of Michigan’s medical school in Ann Arbor. She graduated at the age of 41, becoming one of the first female physicians in the United States.

Hill moved to Dubuque, Iowa, where she practiced medicine for 36 years. She specialized in obstetrics. She established the Women’s Rescue Society of Dubuque in 1896 to give shelter to unwed mothers and their children. Seventy years after her death, in January 1919, Hill was inducted into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame in 1989.

After reading about these wonderful MHC alumnae and their achievements, I can’t help but feel incredibly inspired and motivated to do my absolute best in my remaining years at Mount Holyoke. And who knows? Maybe after we graduate from MHC we’ll achieve something groundbreaking as well!


Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13

If you would like to write for Her Campus Mount Holyoke, or if you have any questions or comments for us, please email [email protected].