September 24, 2012

After Fleeing Nazis, Prof. Schwartz, Who Died This Week, Was Leading Female Academic

Print More

Having fled from the Nazis as a child and pursued a career in academia when few female scientists walked the hallways of universities, Prof. Emeritus Ruth Schwartz, nutritional sciences, was remembered as a woman of courage and intellect at her funeral Monday.

Schwartz died on Sept. 19 after a car she was riding in — also carrying her partner, Prof. Emeritus Seymour Smidt, economics and finance — was hit by another car driving down Route 13. She was 88 years old.

Much of Schwartz’s life was remembered Monday afternoon by her long-time friend, Prof. Sharon Kay Obendorf Ph.D. ’76, fiber science and apparel design, senior associate dean for research and graduate education.

Schwartz was born on Oct. 9, 1924, in Berlin, Germany, according to Obendorf. All too abruptly, her childhood seemingly came to an end: In the 1930s, Hitler rose to power, and Schwartz’s Ukranian father was deported to Czechoslovakia. He was later shot by a border guard. In 1939, at the age of 14, Schwartz fled for her life — escaping the Nazis by boarding a Kindertransport train to London.

Rabbi Scott Glass, who officiated the funeral, said that he did not think most parents of Jewish children believed the Kindertransport mission — which moved Jewish children into British foster homes before the beginning of World War II —  “was anything but a temporary arrangement.”

Yet for Schwartz, “as for so many others, she would never see her parents — or most of her family — ever again,” Glass said.

In fact, Glass said, it was 20 years before Schwartz discovered that her brother was still alive.

“One friend called her courageous. In reflecting on the path that her life took, I’d say one had to be courageous to have been able to navigate it as well as Ruth did,” Glass said.

The political turmoil Schwartz witnessed in her early years made her an adult who was “always interested in what was happening in the world,” Obendorf said.

“I think when you think about her young days, you would understand … why she cared about politics,” Obendorf added.

Schwartz ultimately made it safely to London, where she found the support of a foster family, as well as friends, who encouraged her to pursue her budding interest in science.

Although Schwartz studied chemistry, physiology and nutrition as an undergraduate and graduate student, she struggled to find a teaching position at a British university after graduation, Obendorf said. But, refusing to give up her ambition, in 1963 Schwartz left for America.

Schwartz taught at a few universities before she came to Cornell in 1970 — at “a time when the [College of Human Ecology] was changing,” Obendorf said.

“This was the transition from [the College of] Home Economics to the College of Human Ecology,” Obendorf said. “Ruth Schwartz was one of the scientists who was hired to increase our research mission in the College of Human Ecology and transform us into the research and teaching college that you would think of today.”

According to Prof. Virginia Utermohlen, human nutrition, who met Schwartz at the University when their offices shared a hallway, Schwartz helped found the Department of Nutritional Sciences in 1974.

Obendorf added that Schwartz’s grounding in science led her to teach graduate students in several fields, ranging from nutritional sciences to environmental toxicology to international development.

Another chapter of Schwartz’s life began when, in 2002, she met — and began dating — Prof. Emeritus Smidt.

Schwartz, Glass said, “helped give [Smidt] a new lease on life, and seemed to make him very happy.”

“Many people took great joy in seeing how good their relationship was for each of them and both of them, making the events of last Wednesday that much more tragic,” Glass said.

Smidt, who drove the car Schwartz was riding in Wednesday, was airlifted to Robert Packer Hospital in Sayre, Pa., for treatment. He is still recovering from his injuries, according to Glass.

“We hope for [Smidt]’s speedy recovery and hope that Ruth is now in peace,” Glass said.

Original Author: Akane Otani