Margaret Catherine Stifler Nash ’39
A lifetime of learning
By Natalie Eastwood
Margaret Catherine Stifler Nash ’39 was exhausted several days after her 101st birthday. She had thought 100 would be the big party, but 101 turned out to be a three-day affair, even with restrictions due to COVID-19.
Nash, who goes by Kay, was born August 31, 1919, the oldest of 10 on a farm that grew produce for Baltimore City markets. The hike to grammar school was long, but during her last years she drove her two younger sisters in a pony cart. Since the school bus didn’t drive far enough into the country for Nash to catch a ride, at age 12, she went to live with an aunt and uncle to attend high school. At 15, a family friend gave Nash a partial four-year scholarship to attend any Maryland college. She started as premed at Goucher, but after hearing that she would need to have a male doctor to take her under his wings upon graduation from medical school, Nash switched to education and later biology.
Nash earned a Goucher scholarship to study zoology at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, in Massachusetts. She used money from winning the Queen Maryland 1940 beauty contest—which a sister entered her in—to pay for her room and board at Woods Hole. The Baltimore American wrote about her beauty queen title and mentioned her work with “invertebrates, animals with backbones.” Nash wrote to them—explaining invertebrates don’t have backbones—and the newspaper ran a correction with a photo of Nash, wryly holding a cat skeleton. After graduation, she was a biology assistant at Goucher and fleetingly considered a career in modeling after contact with a modeling agency in New York City. Instead, Nash continued teaching, earned her master’s degree at Ohio State University, and completed Ph.D. coursework at the University of Pennsylvania. Despite completing all of the coursework, the university never granted her doctorate because the dean required her to live on-campus while completing her thesis, and the college she was working for would not hold her job.
While attending the University of Maryland’s summer graduate program, Nash met her late husband, Carroll Nash, who was a biologist and parapsychologist, researching psychic and paranormal phenomena. The husband-and-wife team conducted many experiments, often using their students, mediums, and twins, to provide evidence for clairvoyance, telepathy, and extrasensory perception (ESP), which gets called the sixth sense. One such experiment asked subjects to use telekinesis to encourage plants to grow, while others used the opposite action. Another time, the Nashes placed chicks on a table and designated which ones should stay on the table and which ones they wanted their subjects to convince to walk off the edge. Carroll wrote the bulk of the science articles (and two books) on parapsychology, but Catherine also published articles. Both presented papers at the international Parapsychology Association’s annual meetings.
They both taught biology at several colleges before St. Joseph’s College (now University), Philadelphia, where they taught for over 35 years. Nash was the first woman faculty member and remained the only woman professor at the then all-men’s school for nine years. Nash would eventually teach premed students, many of them now doctors, she says proudly. Nash went beyond her role as a biology professor and helped create new classes, one of them being a sexuality course that she taught for four years. She led the biology portion of the course, a psychologist taught the emotional components, and a priest lectured morality. The class also covered sexually transmitted diseases, but not contraception. “Every seat in that class was full,” Nash recalls. When Nash took her sabbatical, she wrote about sexuality in aging women, from both the physical and emotional perspectives.
Being a woman during the early years of her career was difficult. Despite doing the equivalent work of her male peers, she watched as they received awards. Instead, Nash received a revolving door of women faculty who came to her, upset because of how a male professor was treating them. Nash, after years of hurtful and often petty behavior from her peers, discovered close to her retirement that one of her colleagues—who started at St. Joseph’s at the same time—was making almost double her salary. Addressing this disparity to the dean did nothing to increase Nash’s pay. Only in the latter half of her career did Nash begin to receive some recognition, including grants, awards for her teaching and courses, and awards from her students, many of whom still visit and send flowers. In 2011, St. Joseph’s granted Nash with a Doctor of Science honoris causa and its medical alumni created a scholarship in her name for premed students.
Now at a residential community in California, Nash is still taking classes. In a 30-day happiness class she took recently, each participant was to write a note about something that made them happy each day. By day 17, Nash was the only one left; while others had given up, she could have completed this assignment for the rest of her days. In fact, she probably will. The trick to living, she says, has always been “to be happy and work to make others happy, too.”