Remembering Nancy Milburn

The former dean of Jackson College was a role model for women in science 

Nancy Stafford Milburn, AG50, a professor of biology emerita and the first dean of the combined College of Liberal Arts and Jackson College at Tufts, died after a long illness on November 8. She was 95.  

A respected insect neurophysiologist, she began teaching at Tufts in 1958 and chaired the Department of Biology from 1967-1968.  

Milburn was born in Syracuse, New York, in 1927. She met her husband, Richard H. Milburn, when both were winners of the Westinghouse Science Talent Search Scholarships in 1945. They reconnected as undergraduates at Harvard University, where Milburn received a degree from Radcliffe College in 1949, and married in 1951.  

Milburn turned down a scholarship to medical school to pursue graduate biology, in part, she said in the 1967 Tufts yearbook, because she found it easier to dissect cockroaches than people. She studied with Tufts professor Kenneth Roeder, a leader in the fields of neurobiology and behavior, receiving her master’s degree in 1950. She was awarded her doctorate in biology from Harvard in 1959. 

While still completing her dissertation, Milburn began teaching at Tufts, where she led courses in neurophysiology, cell biology, electron microscopy, and insect physiology.  

“Her warm personality always made us feel at ease, even when confronted with some of the complex concepts of cytology and biochemistry,” read a student profile of her in the yearbook. 

Her colleagues remembered her as articulate and deeply informed but also exceptionally kind. Whether it was microscopy and biology or career development and university governance, “her deep aquamarine eyes lit up at the mere promise of substantive conversation about all levels of the academic enterprise,” recalled Associate Professor George Ellmore, her colleague in the biology department for nearly two decades. 

He recalled that even with her many duties as an administrator, Milburn gamely attended weekly seminar research presentations in the biology department, providing insights and levity along the way: “Professors don’t die,” she quipped, “they lose control of their faculties.”   

Her research focused mainly on arthropod central nervous systems, particularly neurosecretion in cockroaches.  

“She knew research well enough to see when a result was hard-won or even a once-a-lifetime event,” Ellmore said. When he marveled at a breathtakingly unlikely cross-section she had made of a single, needle-like stylet in a mosquito’s mouth—still showing the connection to the head and thorax—her reaction was, “Sometimes, you just get lucky.”  

In 1972, Milburn was named dean of Jackson College for Women. That same year, she helped prepare a report on the status of women at Tufts, which showed that while the university was ahead of its peer institutions in some ways, only 8 percent of the full-time Arts and Sciences faculty were women with tenure. 

In 1978, she became the first dean of Liberal Arts and Jackson, a combined position she held for four years and that gave her more direct involvement in faculty academic concerns. “She strove to create an academic milieu in which women would achieve academically on a par with men, thrive as prospective professionals, and succeed as faculty members and administrators,” read her obituary in the Boston Globe.  

She is remembered as an active mentor of young women in the sciences and a strong role model for women in science and academic administration. She retired in 1998. 

She served on the Fulbright Council for the International Exchange of Scholars, as an alumnae trustee for Radcliffe College, as chair of the Committee on Radcliffe-Harvard Relations, as a trustee of both Bentley College and Regis College, and as a corporation member and trustee of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. 

Her husband, also a Tufts professor, died in 2015. She is survived by two daughters and four grandchildren.  

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