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.
completed her high school education at the age of 15 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 a move characteristic of 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 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 six 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.
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
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. At the age of 67, 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 Smith College board of trustees,
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.
Ada Comstock Notestein considered education and personal
growth to be a lifelong process. As Ada Comstock Scholars, our lives epitomize these
ideals. Active and involved in her work for higher education for women until her
death at 97, she inspires all of us with her enthusiasm for life and perseverance
in the attainment of personal goals.
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