The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

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Mary Jo Nye Oral History Interviews

Two life history interviews conducted by Chris Petersen.

March 2015


“From the Laboratory to the Archive, a Historian of Science Evolves”  March 26, 2015  Location: Valley Library, Oregon State University.  Watch Video | Download Transcript (PDF)

In interview 1, Nye discusses her family background and upbringing in Nashville, her earliest interests in science and science fiction, and her decision to pursue undergraduate studies in the sciences. From there she notes her initial college experience at Vanderbilt University, her transfer to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the tumultuous social and political environment that was pervasive around the world in the mid- and late-1960s. She then describes the circumstances by which she made the decision to pursue graduate training in History, the atmosphere in Wisconsin's History of Science department, and the work that was required of her to develop a historian's skillset, including a memorable early research trip to archives in France.

The Nyes' move to the University of Oklahoma is the next focus of the interview, with Mary Jo reflecting on the environment that she and her husband encountered at Oklahoma at the end of the 1960s. She then recounts her progression in academic rank while on faculty in Norman, and also discusses several of her trips to work as a visiting scholar at other institutions.

The session next shifts its focus to Nye's second book, the topic of which was scientific communities and provincial leadership in late 19th and early 20th century France. In discussing her work on the book, Nye recalls her initial idea for the project and her experiences conducting research in a variety of French archives. She then reflects on her activities in 1988 and 1989, a time period during which she served as a visiting professor at Harvard and as president of the History of Science Society.

As the interview nears its close, Nye shares her memories of her tenure as chair of the History of Science department at Oklahoma. The session concludes with an examination of another of Nye's books, From Chemical Philosophy to Theoretical Chemistry: Dynamics of Matter and Dynamics of Disciplines, 1800-1950, published in 1993, near the end of her years at the University of Oklahoma.

“Reaching Across Disciplines as the Horning Chair”  March 27, 2015  Location: Valley Library, Oregon State University.  Watch Video | Download Transcript (PDF)

The primary focus of interview 2 is Nye's activities at and memories of Oregon State University.

The session begins with Nye providing background information on her husband's life and work, and also answering a question about interactions with History faculty at the University of Wisconsin. She then describes the decision to move to OSU after twenty-five years at the University of Oklahoma. She discusses the circumstances by which the Horning Endowment was made to accommodate two endowed chairs and outlines the agenda that she and her husband developed for the outreach component of the chair. In this, she reflects on the interdisciplinary mandate of the Horning chair and the exhilaration that she felt in working with colleagues from many different OSU departments. Nye also describes the ways in which close access to the papers of Linus Pauling steered her toward certain research topics

The interview then turns its attention to Nye's memories of the state of the History department upon her arrival at OSU, and various colleagues who made an impact on her during her OSU years. One individual discussed in particular is a former graduate student of Nye's, Terry Christensen, who researched and wrote on the physicist John Wheeler, in the process earning his Ph.D., despite being legally blind. Nye also recalls her association with the University Honors College and the genesis of her relationship with the University of Cambridge.

From there, Nye discusses her work researching and writing two books, Before Big Science: The Pursuit of Modern Chemistry and Physics and From Chemical Philosophy to Theoretical Chemistry: Dynamics of Matter and Dynamics of Disciplines, 1800-1950, the latter described as a particularly challenging book to write. She likewise describes her process in developing her books on Michael Polanyi and P.M.S. Blackett, before reflecting on her interest in politically active scientists and her friendship with Roald Hoffmann.

Near the conclusion of the interview, Nye shares her experience of receiving the prestigious Sarton Medal from the History of Science Society in 2006, and describes the impact that OSU has made on her. The session closes with Nye's thoughts on the current direction of OSU - including her concerns over the costs of higher education and the movement toward online instruction - and shares a few ideas on future projects that she might pursue.