Survey Says

June 1, 2008
Survey says: Students learning to use a surveyor's transit in the 1940s.

Survey says: Students learning to use a surveyor's transit in the 1940s. Duke University Archives

Decades of Devils: mascot manifestations '30s
Decades of Devils: mascot manifestations '30s

Women engineers Reel, top, and Williams, bottom. Duke University Archives

Muriel Theodorsen Williams and Marie Foote Reel entered Duke on different paths. Williams, whose father was a physicist and engineer, planned to major in physics. Reel hoped to study Spanish. But over the course of their academic careers, their paths converged: In 1946, the two became the first women to graduate from Duke's College of Engineering, which had been established in 1939.

Reflecting on the experience nearly fifty years later-in 1991, when the two engineers were honored by having their portraits hung in the East Duke Building alongside those of other prominent alumnae and former administrators-Williams observed that she and Reel "showed, without the intention of doing so, that women can equal men in their ability to master scientific and technical subjects. We loved the intellectual challenges; and we met them," she said.

"Our professors and fellow students respected us; they liked us. I believe we in those years convinced them and consequently later generations and other people at Duke ...that women in engineering are not undesirable, inept intruders in a traditionally all-male field but rather, that we are able co-workers who can carry our own weight and sometimes excel in this field of untold importance to humanity." Williams went on to serve as a statistician at the Minute Maid Corporation, and later as a consultant.

After graduating magna cum laude, Reel served as an assistant editor at Electrical Engineering, the official magazine of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, taught on the electrical-engineering faculty at Texas A&M University, and worked for an engineering-design consulting firm.

In the February 1958 issue of DukEngineer magazine, she challenged future generations of women: "The successful woman engineer needs all the usual qualifications plus a few more. She must be better than average in ability so that she can earn and expect respect based on accomplishments alone.

"Not only can she not expect special treatment because of her sex," Reel said, "she must be careful not to accept it."