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Ada Louise Comstock papers

Identifier: CA-MS-00015

Scope and Contents

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. Also included are items from the table - teapots, flatware, pitcher, and tableware.

Dates of Materials

  • Creation: 1897 - 1998


Conditions Governing Access

Materials in the Smith College Archives are open for use, with the following exceptions: "Office Files," files of records created for the use of the administrative unit that created them, are closed to research for a period of 10 years following their creation.

Board of Trustees' records are closed permanently.

In all cases, the College Archives will continue to provide public access to materials that were intended to be public at the time of their creation (press releases, publications, etc.)

Conditions Governing Use

Smith College retains copyright of materials created as part of its business operations; however, copyright in other items in this collection may be held by their respective creators. For reproductions of materials that are governed by fair use as defined under U. S. Copyright Law, no permission to cite or publish is required. For instances which may regard materials in the collection not created by Smith College, researchers are responsible for determining who may hold materials' copyrights and obtaining approval from them. Researchers do not need anything further from Smith College Special Collections to move forward with their use.

Biographical / Historical

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 one of the first women elected to 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]


7.625 linear feet (12 containers)

Language of Materials



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.


This collection is organized into five series:

  1. I. Biographical Materials
  2. II. Correspondence
  3. III. Employment
  4. IV. Photographs
  5. V. Speeches, Writings, and Publications

Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements

As a preservation measure, researchers must use digital copies of audiovisual materials in this collection. Please consult with Special Collections staff or email to request the creation of and access to digital copies.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Source unknown.

Related Material

  1. Class of 1897 Records
  2. Ada Louise Comstock Diaries and Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study

Processing Information

Processed by Gayla B. Spaulding.

Processing Information

Please note that prior to 2018, folder inventories were not always updated when new material was added to the collection. As a result, folder inventories may not be complete and folder numbers may be incorrect.

Finding aid to the Ada Louise Comstock Papers
Legacy Finding Aid (Updated)
Gayla B. Spaulding
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Encoding funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Revision Statements

  • 07/26/2017: This resource was modified by the ArchivesSpace Preprocessor developed by the Harvard Library (
  • 2005-09-23: manosca15 converted from EAD 1.0 to 2002 by v1to02-5c.xsl (sy2003-10-15).
  • 2018-11-02: Containers added and finding aid updated as part of the College Archives Survey
  • 2019-11-22: Added boxes 1-4

Repository Details

Part of the Smith College Archives Repository

Neilson Library
7 Neilson Drive
Northampton MA 01063