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Ada Louise Comstock Papers, 1897-1950
6 boxes (3.375 linear ft.)
Collection number: RG 42

Acting President of Smith College, Dean of the College of Smith College, Professor of English at Smith College, and President of Radcliffe College. Contains biographical material, correspondence, materials related to professional and volunteer work, and photographs.

Terms of Access and Use:

Restrictions on access:

The collection is open to research according to the regulations of the Smith College Archives.

Restrictions on use:

Single photocopies may be made for research purposes. Permission to publish material from the papers must be requested from the Archives. The Archives has no information on the status of literary rights in the collection and researchers are responsible for determining any question of copyright.

Smith College Archives
Northampton, MA

Biographical Note

Born on December 11, 1876 in Moorhead, Minnesota, Ada Comstock was the eldest of three children; she was bright, vivacious, and very much a tomboy in her early childhood. Her father, a successful lawyer, recognized her capabilities and potential and set about to cultivate them by encouraging an early and sound education for his daughter.

Ada completed her high school education at the age of fifteen and then went on to college. In 1895 she transferred from the University of Minnesota to Smith College, where she completed her last two years of undergraduate study. As a Smith student, Ada often questioned the established rules and norms of college life. While a resident of Hubbard House, she was given a case of champagne which the housemother felt should be given away. Instead, in what was characteristically her spirit, she decided to store it in the water cooler to refresh her friends!

After graduating from Smith in 1897, Ada went on to a graduate program at Moorhead State Normal School where she became certified to teach. She then entered Columbia University for graduate work in English, History, and Education, and by 1899 was ready to return home to look for a job. In 1907, after teaching rhetoric at the University of Minnesota, she was appointed the University's first Dean of Women. In this capacity, she was instrumental in improving the quality of life for the women of the college, arguing persistently that a college was responsible for one's physical and intellectual well-being.

In 1912, Ada came to Smith as the first ever Dean of the College and to teach English. Particularly challenging to her was the opportunity to advise and teach young women in an all-female institution. One of the most important tenets of her educational philosophy was the inculcation in young women of self-respect, one aspect of which was knowing how to employ oneself. Ada believed very strongly throughout her entire life that a college education should inspire women to take a part in the shaping of the world.

In 1917, when the Presidency of Smith College became vacant, Ada was given the responsibility of its operation for approximately 6 months, but was neither given the title of acting President nor was she considered for the position. Despite Ada's significant and numerous contributions to the College, Smith was not ready for its first woman President.

Ada was an early member of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae, later called the American Association of University Women which she served as president. She was a founding member and one of the five American voting delegates to the first conference of the International Federation of University Women in London in 1920 and at the second in Paris in 1922. One of their objects was the forwarding of higher education for women in every country in the world. She was active in other areas in public life as well. In 1929 she was the only woman named by President Herbert Hoover to an eleven-person commission to study problems of law enforcement. She was a president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vice Chairman of the American Council of Institute of Pacific Relations and served on the National Committee for Planned Parenthood.

The chance to become the President of a women's college presented itself to Ada in 1923 when Radcliffe offered her the position of their first full-time President. Throughout most of her administration, Ada Comstock struggled with trying to maintain a balance between Radcliffe's association with Harvard and its establishment as an independent women's college. Under President Comstock, Radcliffe was able to launch a nationwide admission program, improve student housing, construct new classroom buildings and expand the graduate program. In short, Radcliffe's permanence was assured. In 1943, Ada felt her work at Radcliffe was complete. She had brought the institution to distinction and maturity, and it was now time to move on.

Her honors were numerous, fourteen honorary degrees were conferred on her, including Smith's L. H. D. in 1922. Each of the three institutions she had served, the University of Minnesota and Smith and Radcliffe Colleges have residence halls named for her.

At the age of sixty-seven, she stepped down from the Presidency and shortly after announced her marriage to Wallace Notestein, Sterling Professor Emeritus of History at Yale University, a man she had known since her days at the University of Minnesota. Retirement for Ada was an extremely busy period in her life. She continued to be actively involved with the Board of Trustees of Smith College, worked on plans for the graduate center at Radcliffe, did extensive educational committee work, administered a two-career household, and traveled extensively with her husband. Mrs. Notestein died in December of 1973.

[Some of this information was taken from the Ada Comstock Scholars Program's History of Ada Comstock at]

Scope and Contents of the Collection

The Ada Louise Comstock Papers contain biographical materials, correspondence, employment histories, speeches and writings, information on her voluntary services and photographs that span Comstock's life and career as Dean of Smith College, President of Radcliffe College and retirement.

Information on Use
Terms of Access and Use
Restrictions on access:

The collection is open to research according to the regulations of the Smith College Archives.

Restrictions on use:

Single photocopies may be made for research purposes. Permission to publish material from the papers must be requested from the Archives. The Archives has no information on the status of literary rights in the collection and researchers are responsible for determining any question of copyright.

Preferred Citation

Please use the following format when citing materials from this collection:

Ada Louise Comstock Papers, Box #, Smith College Archives.

History of the Collection

Processing Information

Processed by Gayla B. Spaulding.

Additional Information
Contact Information
Smith College Special Collections
Young Library
4 Tyler Drive
Northampton, MA 01063

Phone: (413) 585-2970
Fax: (413) 585-2886

Encoding funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Contents List
Series I: Biographical Materials

This section of the collection contains an index to the collection, awards and degrees, information on Ada's marriage, memorabilia and obituaries.

Collection Index
n. d.

Box 719.2: folder 1
1923 - 1998

Box 719.2: folder 2

Box 719.2: folder 3
Awards and Degrees
1958 - 1966

Box 719.2: folder 4
1943 - 1969

Box 719.2: folder 5
1973 - 74,n. d.

Box 719.2: folder 6
Comstock House
1975 - 1986

Box 719.2: folder 7
"From Western Prairies to Eastern Commons: A Life in Education, Ada Louise Comstock Notestein, 1876 - 1973" -- By Barbara Miller Solomon

Box 719.2: folder 8
Series II: Correspondence

This section of the collection consists of correspondence, both professional and personal with several letters to and from Ada's closest friend, Mabel Dick Swan.

Smith College
1945 - 1967

Box 719.2: folder 9
Mabel Dick Swan
1937 - 1962

Box 719.2: folder 10
Mabel Dick Swan
1963 - 1969, n. d.

Box 719.2: folder 11
Mabel Dick Swan
1972 - 73, n. d.

Box 719.2: folder 12
1912 - 1973

Box 719.2: folder 13
Helen French Greene
1917 - 1923

Box 719.2: folder 14
Harriet Louise Peloubet
1932 - 36

Box 719.2: folder 15
Comstock Family
1914 - 1920

Box 719.2: folder 16
Series III: Employment

This section contains folders housing information pertaining to much of Ada's work, both professional and voluntary dating from 1912 to 1969.

University of Minnesota
n. d.

Box 719.2: folder 17
Smith College: Dean's Reports
1912 - 1923

Box 719.2: folder 18
Smith College
1912 - 1923

Box 719.2: folder 19
Smith College: Press Board

Box 719.2: folder 20
Radcliffe College: Inauguration

Box 719.2: folder 21
Radcliffe College
1923 - 1943

Box 719.2: folder 22
Series IV: Photographs

The collection contains five folders of photographs dated from 1897 through 1967 with a few undated photos.

Photographs (Given to Walter F. Ellis)
n. d.

Box 720: folder 1
1897, n. d.

Box 720: folder 2
1920, 1940

Box 720: folder 3
As Mrs. Notestein
1949 - 1967

Box 720: folder 4
of portrait presented to Smith College by Cecilia Beaux

Box 720: folder 5
Series V: Speeches, Writings, and Publications

This section of the collections is further divided into three smaller sections - speeches, writings and publications including two large bound collections of speeches and writings.

1915 - 1945

Box 720: folder 6

Invitations from classes for reunions
1947 - 1976

Box 720: folder 7
Smith College Alumnae Council

Box 720: folder 8

Smith College A. A. U. W.
1922, n. d.

Box 720: folder 9
Smith College A. C. A.
1916, n. d.

Box 720: folder 10
Amherst College
1921 - 22

Box 720: folder 11
Bryn Mawr College

Box 720: folder 12
"The College Curriculum as a Matter of Teaching"
n. d.

Box 720: folder 13
Smith College Commencement

Box 720: folder 14
Commencement Address
n. d.

Box 720: folder 15
"How to Become a Dean of Women"
n. d.

Box 720: folder 16
Smith College

Greetings to the Class of 1921

Box 720: folder 17
Heads of House
1913 - 1921

Box 720: folder 18
Higher Education
1925, n. d.

Box 720: folder 19
League of Women Voters
n. d.

Box 720: folder 20
"Welcome to Madame Curie"

Box 720: folder 21
Phi Beta Kappa Society
n. d.

Box 720: folder 22
S. C. A. C. W.
1921, 1922

Box 720: folder 23
Student Government

Box 720: folder 24
"Prayer for Colleges"
n. d.

Box 720: folder 25
"Vocational Training for Women"

Box 720: folder 26
on War Activities
n. d.

Box 720: folder 27
n. d.

Box 720: folder 28
Smith Clubs
1912 - 1939

Box 720: folder 29
n. d.

Box 721: folder 1

Box 721: folder 2

Box 721: folder 3

Box 721: folder 4
on Press Release

Box 721: folder 5
on Memorial Service for Elizabeth Cutter Morrow

Box 721: folder 6
General (boxed)
1937 - 1940

Box 721: folder 7
General: Compiled by Robert Loeffler
n. d.

Box 721: folder 8
Bound Collection of Speeches and Writings I

Box 722
Bound Collection of Speeches and Writings II

Box 723
Voluntary Services

Alumnae Association Class of 1897
1947 - 1967

Box 724: folder 1
President Mendenhall Inauguration
1959 - 1969

Box 724: folder 2
Smith College Panel on Postwar Planning
1945 - 46

Box 724: folder 3
Board of Trustees
1940 - 44

Box 724: folder 4
Board of Trustees
1945 - 46

Box 724: folder 5
Board of Trustees: Committee on Needs
1945 - 46

Box 724: folder 6
Board of Trustees: Committee on Needs (library)

Box 724: folder 7
Board of Trustees
1946 - 47

Box 724: folder 8
China Colleges - Commission on Women's Higher Education in China
1945 - 46

Box 724: folder 9
China Colleges - China Institute
1945 - 47

Box 724: folder 10
China Colleges - International Federation of University Women
n. d.

Box 724: folder 11
Reid Hall
1947 - 1949

Box 725: folder 1
Reid Hall
1950 - 1954

Box 725: folder 2
Reid Hall
1955 - 1958

Box 725: folder 3
Reid Hall
1959 - 1960

Box 725: folder 4
Reid Hall
1961 - 1965

Box 725: folder 5
Smith College Alumnae Council
1937 - 1960

Box 725: folder 6
Smith College Anniversary Observance Committee
1948 - 49

Box 725: folder 7
Smith College Anniversary Fund
1945 - 46

Box 725: folder 8

Trustees Committee of Instruction
1945 - 49

Box 725
Correspondence re: Deanship
1945 - 47

Box 726: folder 1
Candidates for Dean (in alphabetical order)
1945 - 48

Box 726: folder 2
Committee to find President
1948 - 49

Box 726: folder 3
Selection of New Trustee (1946)
1945 - 46

Box 726: folder 4

Search Terms
The following terms represent persons, organizations, and topics documented in this collection. Use these headings to search for additional materials on this web site, in the Five College Library Catalog, or in other library catalogs and databases.

  • Comstock, Ada Louise.
  • Radcliffe College--Presidents.
  • Smith College--Faculty,
  • Smith College--Presidents.

  • Greene, Helen French, 1868-
  • Peloubet, Harriet Louise.
  • Solomon, Barbara Miller.
  • Swan, Mabel Dick.

Questions about this collection? Contact the archives
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