Helen Tredway Graham (1890-1971)

Helen Tredway Graham
Helen Tredway Graham, ca. 1958

Born in 1890 in Dubuque, Iowa, Helen Tredway was a gifted student, finishing first in her class in high school, and receiving a full scholarship to Bryn Mawr College (after receiving the highest score in the College Entrance Board Examinations that year). She received an A.B. from Bryn Mawr in 1911 and a master’s degree the following year. As valedictorian of the class of 1911, Helen received a $500 European scholarship, which she used to study at the Georg-August Universit´┐Żt in Göttingen, Germany.

Returning from Germany, Helen Tredway enrolled as the only female graduate student in the University of Chicago chemistry department. She received her doctorate in September 1915, one of four women that year to receive doctorates in the science division (the others were in botany and mathematics). While in Chicago, Helen met Evarts A. Graham, a young surgeon. The couple married in 1916 and soon settled in Mason City, Iowa, where Graham was chief of surgery at Park Hospital. The couple’s first son, David, was born in 1917.

Evarts A. Graham entered the army in 1918. Helen and David followed Graham in his postings, first to Chicago, then Virginia and Baltimore. While in Baltimore, Helen Tredway Graham secured an appointment at Johns Hopkins, working in the lab of Dr. John Jacob Abel, one of the leading figures in the study of pharmacology at the time. After the completion of his military service, the Grahams moved to St. Louis, where Evarts had accepted the position of professor of Surgery and chairman of the department at the Washington University School of Medicine. The couple’s second son, Evarts, Jr., was born in 1921. A third son, John, was born in June 1925, though he survived only four hours before dying of an intracranial hemorrhage.

Helen Tredway Graham
Helen Tredway Graham, 1925

Helen Tredway Graham joined the faculty of the Washington University School of Medicine in July 1925, when she accepted an appointment as assistant in Pharmacology. Promotions to instructor (1926), assistant professor (1931), associate professor (1937) and professor (1954) followed. In 1959, Helen Tredway Graham retired and became professor emeritus, a position she retained until her death in 1971. As a teacher, Helen Tredway Graham held her students to her own high standards; she expected her students to become scholars as well as physicians. Helen Tredway Graham authored 46 scientific publications over the course of her research career.

In the early part of her research career, Helen Tredway Graham’s work concerned the physiology and pharmacology of peripheral nerves. At the age of 60, Graham switched to the study of histamines (which she had studied while working at Johns Hopkins in 1918). She discovered the histamine storage function of mast cells and blood basophils, and she developed highly sensitive methods for measuring histamine in body fluids.

Helen Tredway Graham in her lab
Helen Tredway Graham, in her lab, 1948

Helen Tredway Graham was remarkable in her ability to balance the many facets of her life. She was a respected research scientist and teacher. She was the wife of an internationally known surgeon and successfully managed the corresponding social obligations. She was the mother of two sons, who were encouraged in their eventual careers as newspaper editor and doctor. And she was deeply involved in civic duties and public service. She was a forerunner to the women’s liberation movement and an inspiration to the women she taught, successfully balancing her roles (wife, mother, scientist, teacher, civic leader) decades before feminism became a movement.

Helen Tredway Graham was active in the fight against air pollution, toward the cause of consumer protection in the purchase of drugs and in the establishment of the Junior College District in St. Louis. She became active in the American Association of University Women in 1923, and served as the president of the St. Louis Branch in the late 1920s. She remained active in the group the rest of her life, culminating in a fellowship named in her honor. Helen Tredway Graham was a longtime member of the St. Louis League of Women Voters, serving as its president in 1927. She was vice-chairman of the Metropolitan Citizens Committee on Air Pollution and on the Board of Directors of the Coalition for the Environment, the Committee for Environmental Information, and the St. Louis Civil Liberties Committee. She was a member of the Citizens Clean Air Committee, Air Pollution Control Association, and the Open Space Council. In 1958-59, Helen Tredway Graham served on the nine-member St. Louis Metropolitan Board of Freeholders, helping to draft a metropolitan district plan for the consolidation of services in St. Louis City and County.

After her retirement in 1959, Helen Tredway Graham continued her research activities. She suffered a heart attack after climbing the stairs to her office on April 2, 1971, and died two days later. Her body was donated to the School of Medicine, where she had devoted so many years to teaching and research.