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Martha Peterson papers

Call Number: RH MS 953


Jamestown, Kansas native Martha Peterson (1916-2006) served as Dean of Women at the University of Kansas and the University of Wisconsin, President of Barnard College, New York, and President of Beloit College, Wisconsin. Peterson, the first woman to serve on the board of ExxonMobil, also served on many other corporate boards. This collection of her papers reflects these activities, as well as her personal and family history. The collection includes professional and personal correspondence, personal records, newspaper clippings, and photographs.


  • Creation: 1830-2007 (bulk 1916-2006)


Conditions Governing Access

No access restrictions.

Conditions Governing Use

Spencer Library staff may determine use restrictions dependent on the physical condition of manuscript materials.

Biography of Martha E. Peterson

Martha Elizabeth Peterson was born June 22, 1916 near Jamestown, Kansas to Anton Romeo Peterson (1890-1952) and Osey Gail French (1891-1982), who were married November 14, 1914. In 1933 Peterson graduated from Salina High School, Salina, Kansas, and went on to attend the University of Kansas (KU), earning both her B.A. (1937) and M.A. (1943) in mathematics.

Peterson taught math in high schools in Stockton and Ellinwood, KS from 1937-1942 before joining the KU Department of Mathematics as an instructor in 1942. As she worked towards a Ph.D. in educational psychology, which she completed in 1959, Peterson served as assistant dean of women at KU from 1947-1952, and as dean of women from 1952-1956. She is credited with installing the dormitory system for freshmen women while at KU.

In 1956 Peterson left KU to become dean of women at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; she remained in this position until 1963, when she was named University Dean of Affairs.

In 1967, Peterson became the president of Barnard College, where she navigated the student body through the Vietnam War years. She also developed the college's relationship with Columbia University, which lead to a successful course exchange program between the two schools.

Peterson left Barnard in 1975 to become the first woman president at Wisconsin's Beloit College, where she remained until her retirement in 1981. Peterson's tenure at Beloit saw her enact drastic budget cuts in an effort to restore fiscal stability to the institution at a time when both enrollment and endowment funding were down.

Peterson became the first woman to sit on the board of Exxon in 1975. She would also become the first woman to sit on the boards for both Metropolitan Life Insurance Company and Dry Stock Savings Bank.

During her retirement Peterson continued serving on a number of boards, including the Board of Trustees for the University of Notre Dame. She and her longtime companion, Dr. Maxine Bennett, divided their time among residences in Wisconsin and Florida, and traveled extensively.

Peterson was inducted into KU's Women's Hall of Fame in 1972 and received KU's highest honor, the Distinguished Service Citation, in 1968. She also received the KU School of Education's Apple Award in 1993. At the time of her death on July 14, 2006, Peterson had received over 20 honorary degrees from different institutes of higher learning.


40 Linear Feet (82 boxes + 6 oversize boxes, 12 audio cassettes, 1 reel-to-reel tape, 1 VHS video cassette, 1 8mm movie)

Language of Materials


Scope and Contents

The Martha Peterson papers date from 1830 to 2007 and are arranged in eight series: Correspondence, Newspaper Clippings, Family Papers, Personal Papers, Materials about Martha Peterson, Memorabilia, Photographs, and Audio Visual materials.

Correspondence ranges from personal to professional with greeting cards, notes from friends, and reference letters.

Newspaper Clippings chronicle Peterson's accomplishments and interests.

The Family Papers mostly contain the French family genealogy compiled by Osey Gail French Peterson, Peterson's mother.

Personal Papers is the largest section of the collection and includes a wide range of materials that include magazine articles about women in education; memoranda for board meetings for ExxonMobil and Metropolitan Life Insurance Company; materials related to ExxonMobil-sponsored business trips, including background material on refineries, government information on visited countries, and souvenir items; and personal travel diaries and notes.

Memorabilia includes various awards and plaques, souvenirs, and books.

Oversize materials have been physically separated from other textual materials and are at RH MS Q241 and RH MS R196; these materials are described at the end of each series or sub-series where relevant.

Photographs for the collection are located at RH MS-P 953; oversize photographs have been physically separated and are located at RH MS-P 953(f) and RH MS-P 953(ff). Cassette tapes can be found at RH Cassette Tape 40, video cassettes at RH Video 16, and a reel to reel tape at RH Tape 37. 8mm motion pictures are located at RH Movie 3.

Series List

The Martha Peterson collection is arranged in 8 series:

  1. Correspondence
  2. Newspaper clippings
  3. Family papers
  4. Personal papers
  5. Materials about Martha Peterson
  6. Memorabilia
  7. Photographs
  8. Audiovisual materials

Physical Location

RH MS 953

Physical Location

RH MS-P 953

Physical Location

RH MS-P 953(f)

Physical Location

RH MS-P 953 (ff)

Physical Location

RH Cassette Tape 40

Physical Location

RH Tape 37

Physical Location

RH Video 16

Physical Location

RH Movie 3

Physical Location

RH MS R196

Physical Location

RH MS Q241

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift, Martha Peterson, 1998, 2001, 2003.

Separated Materials

Buchanan, Rex. Roadside Kansas: A Traveler's Guide to its Geology and Landmarks. Lawrence, Ks: University Press of Kansas for the Kansas Geological Survey, 1987. Located at Spencer Research Library at RH C11216.

Goodrich, Arthur Leonard. Birds in Kansas. Topeka, Ks: F. Voiland, Jr, State Printer, 1946. Located at Spencer Research Library at RH C11217.

Rhodes, Harry L. Bird Notes, with Questions and Answers. Illustrations by Margaret Whittemore. Wellington, Ks: C. Hillebrandt, 1933. Located at Spencer Research Library at RH B2681.

Whittemore, Margaret. Historic Kansas, A Cententary Sketchbook. Lawrence, Ks: University of Kansas Press, 1954. Located at Spencer Research Library at RH D8709.

Zimmerman, John L. Cheyenne Bottoms. Wetlands in Jeopardy. Lawrence, Ks: University of Kansas, 1950. Located at Spencer Research Library at RH C11215.

Guide to the Martha Peterson Collection
Martha Peterson papers
Finding aid prepared by skt, 2007. Finding aid encoded by skt, 2007. Finding aid revised by mrk, 2010; mwh, 2017.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Finding aid written in English.
Support for the processing of this collection was provided by the G. Baley Price Spencer Research Library Fellowship Fund.
Finding aid permalink
Preferred citation
Martha Peterson papers, Kansas Collection, RH MS 953, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas

Repository Details

Part of the University of Kansas. Kenneth Spencer Research Library Repository

1450 Poplar Lane
Lawrence KS 66045-7616 United States