Ruth Yaffe: “You Can Do It”

By Julia Halprin Jackson

As one of the first woman chemistry professors at San Jose State, Ruth Yaffe taught thousands of Spartans over a 35-year teaching career. Named Outstanding Professor at SJSU in 1982, Yaffe chaired the university senate twice and served on a curriculum committee for more than a decade. Since her retirement in 1990, Yaffe traveled extensively with her late husband Charles Houser and still enjoys visits with her family. (Photo by Tom Sanders)

Photo by Tom Sanders

I was born in Duluth, Minnesota. I was always interested in science and medicine, so I knew college was essential. I was inspired by mother, Cleo Lorraine deVore Powers, who always told me, “You can do it, but you will have to work.”

I was an undergraduate at Macalester College during World War II. There were very few men on campus because most were in the service. I enjoyed freshman chemistry and did well. The head of the chemistry department, Chester Shiflett, hired me to work in his stockroom and grade his papers. I worked enough to pay my tuition. He recognized me because I was a very good student, eventually graduating first in my class in 1948. He directed me to the fellowships that were available at Iowa State University. This enabled me to earn my doctorate in 1951. My specialty was radiochemistry.

I arrived in California in 1958 from Knoxville, Tennessee. My husband, Sanford Yaffe, had accepted a position with the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park. I sent letters to nearby colleges and universities with a resume, asking if a chemistry teaching position might be available. On a Thursday evening Ben Naylor, chair of San Jose State’s chemistry department, called to invite me to campus Friday morning. I met him with my diploma and my doctoral thesis, which he took to President John Wahlquist, and returned to say that I was hired as a temporary replacement for the semester, starting the following Monday.

One semester was followed by another, then a year, and then another year. In my third year, the dean of the College of Science asked if I could serve as a radiation safety officer so the biology department could do an experiment using a radioactive tracer. It was then that I learned that I’d been offered tenure and a full-time position. There were no other women in science at San Jose State at the time. Less than two years later, my husband died of a very rare liver disorder and I was the sole supporter of children, ages four and six. My daughter Lauren went on to become a professional editor for the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and my son Laurence is a professor of theoretical physics at the University of Washington, Seattle.

Photo by Tom Sanders

I taught at SJSU for 35 years. I taught freshman chemistry and served as chemistry department advisor for one main reason: I wanted to encourage the best students—in particular, women—to pursue science graduate degrees. My own PhD had been funded by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC)—which later became the Department of Energy. The AEC had a summer program for graduate students and seniors at AEC labs. I met with and convinced the western region director to let me choose two or three of my very brightest freshman or sophomore students to the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory summer program. Those first three students became a medical doctor and two PhDs. I continued this arrangement with the Livermore Laboratory for more than 20 years.

I sent about 500 students on to graduate school in science, medicine and law. Two other woman faculty members joined chemistry while I was there: the late Inge R. Koenic and Juana Acrivos. Throughout my academic career, I did not want to be a “woman chemist.” I wanted to be a colleague on par with the men, accepted by merit, not sex. By the time I retired, women were deans and vice presidents, and our university president was Gail Fullerton.

I still believe that science education is enormously important. Climate change is real. We need to respect all the creatures on our planet and acknowledge their needs.


Julia Halprin Jackson

Julia Halprin Jackson is a writer on San Jose State University's Strategic Communications and Marketing team.

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8 Responses

  1. Timothy Frohlick says:

    I took physical chemistry under Dr. Benjamin Naylor, PhD and radiation health physics under Dr. Ruth P. Yaffe, PhD. Both of these giants were uncompromising and great teachers back in 1971. I applied to medical school and tested in the top ten percent on my MCAT exam. I did not get accepted since I was a Canadian citizen at the time. I obtained my US citizenship in 1972 and entered the USAF in 1974. I became a USAF physician associate and actually used the knowledge that doctors, Naylor and Yaffe imparted to me. I was the least of their student but I did rather well and saved a few lives…TJF

  2. Michael Myers MD says:

    I was in Dr. Yaffe’s honors freshman chemistry class in 1975 and was lucky enough to be selected for the LLL Summer program. I really enjoyed everything about it and it is a time that I look back on with great fondness. Dr. Yaffe, there are teachers that we all remember as being important in shaping who we are and you are at the top of my list. I have thought about you often over the years and I am very happy to hear you are alive and kicking. I was accepted to UCLA for medical school and ended up in Radiology.

  3. Navdeep Gill says:

    A demanding and tough year was spent with Dr Yaffe in Honors Chemistry 1988-89 Thank you from the bottom of my heart!

    • Joseph Barsky says:

      Dr. Ruth P. Yaffe, PhD. also trained many Radiation Safety Officers, myself included as part of our Environmental Health and Safety professional growth. I still have my binder from 1988! Thank you Professor Yaffe.

  4. Don Walters says:

    I remember Professor Yaffe well! Her energy and enthusiasm for the subject actually led me to switch from a math major to chemistry. Thanks for the article!

  5. Louis Rosenfeld says:

    I was in Dr. Yaffe’s freshman chemistry class in 1965. She challenged me and inspired me. I later received my Ph.D in biochemistry from UC Berkeley.
    I’m glad to see that she is still enjoying life.
    Louis Rosenfeld

  6. Cliff Takemoto says:

    Thank you, Professor Yaffe. You were my undergrad advisor and help me get into a summer program at LLL, I really enjoyed working at LLL during the summers. Met some really interesting people and was involved in some interesting programs. I also took some of your radiochemistry classes at SJSU.

  7. Gerhard (Gary) Krohmer says:

    I was one of those students who spent my summers at LLL. This article has brought fond memories of times long gone.

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