The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

Sort Interviews by Affiliation or Theme

Mary Jo Nye Oral History Interviews

Two life history interviews conducted by Chris Petersen.

March 2015


Mary Jo Nye was born in 1944 in Nashville, Tennessee. She and her sister were raised by their college-educated mother and their father, a Retired Marine Corps officer who worked for various finance companies. As a child, Nye enjoyed reading science fiction, and in high school she became increasingly interested in science. Nye's junior year chemistry teacher was a woman whose passion for science encouraged Nye to pursue the study of chemistry in college.

Nye entered Vanderbilt University in the fall of 1962. She completed two years of undergraduate studies at Vanderbilt before transferring to the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1964. Nye graduated in 1965 with a B.S. in chemistry and was intent on pursuing a graduate degree, though unsure about continuing to pursue chemistry, in part because of reservations over the laboratory work that would be required. Still, Nye was interested in scientific literature and scientific thought. Around this time, a professor of the History of Science with whom she had taken a course in her senior year suggested that she consider graduate study in history of science at Wisconsin, and that fall, Nye entered the school's History of Science doctoral program.

While studying at Wisconsin, Mary Jo met Robert A. Nye, who was in the midst of his own doctoral studies in History. They married in 1968 and promptly spent six months conducting archival research in France. The following year, Mary Jo became a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Oklahoma. She received her Ph.D. from Wisconsin in 1970 and subsequently became a visiting professor at Oklahoma. Her husband was also hired into Oklahoma's History department.

The Nyes' daughter, Lesley, was born in 1971. The following year, Mary Jo Nye published her first book, Molecular Reality: A Perspective on the Scientific Work of Jean Perrin, an outgrowth of her doctoral dissertation. In 1975 the visiting professor tag was removed from her title at Oklahoma, and by 1985 she had been promoted to full professor. Her second book, Science in the Provinces: Scientific Communities and Provincial Leadership in France, 1860-1930, was published in 1986, and in 1987 she was elected to serve as Vice President of the History of Science Society, followed by a two-year term as President. In 1993 Nye was appointed chairperson of the History of Science Department at Oklahoma. That same year she published another book, From Chemical Philosophy to Theoretical Chemistry: Dynamics of Matter and Dynamics of Disciplines, 1800-1950.

Mary Jo and Robert Nye moved to Oregon State University in 1994. Each was hired as a professor of History and as Thomas Hart and Mary Jones Horning Professor of the Humanities, a newly created endowed chair at OSU. The endowment, originally intended to be held by a single professor, was generous enough to be split in half, allowing both of the Nyes to be hired and to hold equal positions at the university. As occupants of the chair, the Nyes also co-directed the Horning Endowment in the Humanities Committee, which seeks to deepen the link between the sciences and humanities at Oregon State. In this capacity, the duo was charged with organizing a variety of outreach events, including an annual lecture and conference series that brought speakers from multiple disciplines in the humanities and sciences to lecture on the OSU campus.

Nye published two more books while at OSU: Before Big Science: The Pursuit of Modern Chemistry and Physics, 1800-1940 (1996), and Blackett: Physics, War, and Politics in the Twentieth Century (2004). She also went to Berlin as a visiting scholar in 1999, 2000, and 2004, continuing a career-spanning trend in professional travel that included residencies at Berkeley, Princeton, Harvard and the University of Cambridge, among other institutions. A prolific and influential author, Nye has been the recipient of numerous recognitions, including the 2006 Sarton Medal for Lifetime Scholarly Achievement, the highest award granted by the History of Science Society.

Robert Nye retired from OSU in 2007 and Mary Jo followed suit in 2008. In retirement she has continued to conduct research, publishing several papers as well as a book, Michael Polanyi and His Generation: Origins of the Social Construction of Science (2011), which won the Chemical Heritage Foundation's Roy G. Neville Prize in Biography or Bibliography for 2013.