Remembering Longtime Professor Zella Luria

A noted researcher and activist, Luria taught psychology at Tufts for forty years
Zella Luria at Tufts in 1979
Zella Luria in her office in 1979. Luria had an “unusual, voracious appetite for learning and . . . a commitment to speaking out against every kind of social inequity,” according to a faculty resolution given at her retirement. Photo: Susan Papides
June 21, 2018

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Zella Hurwitz Luria, a popular professor of psychology known for her pioneering work on social constructs of gender roles and for her impassioned opposition to the Vietnam War, died on June 10 at her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Luria, co-author of the influential textbook Human Sexuality (1987), was one of the “early feminists” who challenged the “good, gray, WASP” reputation of Tufts by teaching courses that explored gender and sexuality, said Sol Gittleman, the Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor emeritus and former provost. 

“She was ahead of her time in terms of what she taught in the psychology department,” said Gittleman. “Betty Friedan in 1963 had just come out with The Feminine Mystique, and Zella was ready for the explosion around issues of gender and women’s rights.”

Part of a cadre of dynamic and powerful women on the campus, he added, she also was an outspoken at faculty meetings, pressing for, among other initiatives, expanding the number of women professors.

So potent was her presence that James Glaser, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, remembers her as “a major figure on the faculty when I arrived in the early nineties, both because of her academic reputation and her big personality,” he said. “Her influence at Tufts rippled through her scholarship and through her students.”

Her legacy is reflected in a five-page “Resolution on the Retirement of Professor Zella Luria” [PDF] in which faculty in the School of Arts and Sciences recognized a “one-of-a-kind lady” who started teaching at Tufts in 1959, after working nearly ten years elsewhere as a graduate teaching assistant and post-doctoral lecturer.

“Thus, Zella has been professor to World War II soldiers taking advantage of the GI Bill, to the baby-boomers spawned by those soldiers, to flower children of the 60s, members of the ‘me’ decade, GenXer’s, and now Dot.Comers,” it states. “For all of these generations, throughout her long career, there have been two constants that epitomize Zella. These are her unusual, voracious appetite for learning and her commitment to speaking out against every kind of social inequity.”

Luria’s research on child and adolescent development contributed groundbreaking insights into gender roles and when exactly differences between men and women start. While masculinity and femininity were then largely considered programmed by biology and socialization—rewards and punishments from parents—“Zella [speculated] that children develop their notions about gender categories . . . from perceptually scanning and cognitively organizing the information made available to them,” according to the resolution. Her “methodological and theoretical contributions . . . formed part of a paradigm shift in the field at large, with children now seen to play a very active role in their own socialization.”

She also worked as one of the clinicians on the multiple personality case on which the film The Three Faces of Eve was based. In 1971-72 she was president of the New England Psychological Association.

Luria grew up in the Bronx, one of four children, the daughter of Jewish immigrants. Her mother, who never learned to read, was a seamstress in a sweatshop, and her father a housepainter who was active in union and socialist movements. A precocious reader who was encouraged by her teachers to excel at school, Luria entered Brooklyn College at age 16.

She graduated in 1944 and went on to earn a Ph.D. from Indiana University, where she met and married her husband, Salvador Luria, an MIT microbiologist who would later share the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1969.

At Tufts, Luria was a leading voice for civil rights and an active member of the peace movement.  She joined other faculty in 1969 who voted to ban ROTC from campus. Filling out a fact sheet sent to faculty in 1971 by the Office of Public Information, Luria wrote, under outside interests, “civil rights, civil liberties, peace.”

In the 1970 article “The Role of the University: Ivory Tower, Service Station, or Frontier Post?” for Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Luria and her husband jointly called for a new approach to higher education. “In a return to the true humanistic and Socratic traditions, the university can train its students to explore and evaluate, in a meaningful societal setting, the consequences of specific choices and decisions. The insulating partitions between learning, teaching, and acting in the real world become less rigid, and the intellectual enterprise acquires a new, more integrated character.”

Luria practiced what she preached. The retirement resolution her Tufts colleagues wrote highlights, for example, how she broke down barriers to discussion about sexuality by bringing to her courses “transvestites, prostitutes, and victims of domestic violence . . . to speak and answer questions. The Psychology Department always rather enjoyed shocking the Bursar’s Office with its request for checks cut to the Association of Boston Prostitutes, to pay for Zella’s guest lecturers.”

For her “unique brand of teaching,” she was awarded the Jackson College Teaching Award in 1969 and the Seymour Simches Award for Teaching and Advising in 1995.

Luria retired at age 78, spending summers in Woods Hole, where she and her husband built a summer home in 1964. She continued to volunteer with organizations affiliated with social justice and equity, including the Center for Constitutional Rights.

She is survived by her son Daniel, her brother Jerard Hurwitz, two grandchildren, and two nieces.

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.

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