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Science and political protest: A Q&A with Dr. Florence Haseltine

In March 1995, Ladies Home Journal named Dr. Florence Haseltine one of the ten most important women in medicine. Haseltine, currently Presidential Distinguished Professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, has long been identified as one of the nation’s leading advocates for women’s health. Having earned a PhD in biophysics from MIT and an MD from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, she blazed a diverse and pioneering career as a reproductive endocrinologist, journal editor, inventor, and director of NIH’s Center for Population Research from 1985 to 2012.

Her graduate studies at MIT coincided with a major antiwar protest by hundreds of faculty and student scientists, who, on March 4, 1969, voluntarily stopped their research to examine the involvement of science in the Vietnam War effort. Young scientists, in particular, worried that their work was being applied to destructive ends rather than to solving the world’s most urgent social and environmental problems.

A banner with the words "March 4 Research Stoppage" appears at the top of a black and white photo.
The March 4 public lectures and discussions took place over three days on the MIT campus in 1969.

Like many woman scientists of that era, Haseltine was engaged in the intellectual and political ferment of the day; but, because of gender bias, she was excluded from prominent positions in the March 4 program. Undeterred, Haseltine served as the protest’s photo documentarian. 

Haseltine and her husband, Dr. Alan Chodos, who was one of the protest’s graduate-student organizers, gave the museum their trove of photographs and founding documents from the March 4 events. Curator Jeffrey K. Stine recently interviewed Dr. Haseltine about that protest and her perception of the subsequent changes in how scientists respond to pressing challenges.

A black and white photograph of a woman.
Florence Haseltine, MIT biophysics graduate student, March 1969

How did you become involved with the March 4 events?

I was in my final year of graduate school at MIT in 1969, and it was almost accidental that I became involved. I had participated in a civil rights protest at the University of California at Berkeley, but graduated in spring 1964 before the Free Speech Movement exploded on campus. 

In Cambridge, wanting to become more involved in the activism of the ’60s, I volunteered at an antiwar center, where someone invited me to join a meeting of the March 4th organizers. I was curious and went. It was there that I met physics graduate student Alan Chodos (my future husband), who was handling public relations for the event.

A red poster with the words "I will not research on March 4" on it.
Poster for the March 4 scientific research stoppage at MIT, 1969. The events were co-organized by the Student Action Coordinating Committee (SACC) and university faculty involved in the Union of Concerned Scientists.

You documented the protest in photographs. How did that come to pass?

That was pretty simple. Women had no real active role in these kinds of movements in those days. Basically, you were there for menial help, like licking stamps and to support the male egos. I was not crazy about a limited role in anything. 

No one was recording the events. I knew that a photographer could go anywhere. I had been using a camera for some time in my research and knew how to use the new Nikon and how to develop the pictures. I have always liked gadgets, and this was no exception.

Men and one woman sit in an auditorium.
The March 4 debates filled MIT’s largest lecture hall in 1969. In the foreground at left is Harvard graduate student William A. Haseltine, Florence Haseltine’s brother, who later founded Human Genome Sciences.
A man on stage in a suit jacket.
Harvard biologist and Nobel laureate George Wald was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War. His March 4, 1969, address, “A Generation in Search of a Future,” was reprinted by newspapers and magazines across the country.

Was there any discussion about the absence of women speakers on the stage?

NO!

A man speaks at microphones.
Physicist and Nobel laureate Hans Bethe speaking at the main March 4 event in 1969. Seated, from left to right: physicist Bernard Feld, historian Gar Alperovitz, biologist Matthew Meselson.

To what extent do you think the March 4 participants foreshadowed how scientists are responding to today’s pressing challenges?

That is a great question. The Vietnam War was in full swing and there was a revolt among the young males. They objected to the draft and going to a war they did not support. Among the scientists at MIT (and this was mainly an MIT event), there were professors who had worked on, and later regretted, the atomic bomb. Protesting was thus part of the MIT currency. For example, Henry Kendall, a future Nobel Prize winner, was involved with March 4 and he went on to cofound the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Today’s crises (such as global environmental change) affect youth all over the world, not only students but young professionals like our daughter Anna Chodos. The young, and I don’t just mean students, see the climate crisis as a threat to their future. We saw the crises of the late 1960s more as a direct threat to our lives.

Students stand in front of posters.
Cornell University physics graduate student Alan Chodos (left) and MIT physics graduate student Ira Rubenzahl (center) were among the March 4 student organizers in 1969.

In your opinion, how have the roles of women scientists changed over the past 50 years?

In the past, any woman who complained or made waves was highlighted—and not in a productive way. With the success of more and more women, a tipping point has been reached. Women can now demand respect, not just equity. Such respect is essential for achieving pay equity, which is where the problem starts.
 

Jeffrey K. Stine is a curator in the Division of Medicine and Science.